Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Kottayam style Red Fish Curry

This recipe is not for the faint hearted! One look at this blood red curry and you know why. ;-)
But this is how fish curry is prepared in most Christian households in central Kerala. Its popularly known as Kottayam fish curry. Kottayam is one of the districts in central Kerala, with a large population of Syrian Christians. In Malayalam, its called Meen Vevichathu. The gravy is of a thin consistency laced with red chilli powder and a hint of other spices. Every household has their own version of this curry, the difference is mainly in the level of heat (amount of chilli powder). My aunt in Michigan uses a whopping 4 tablespoons of chilli powder. My mom uses only 2. When I have this with rice, I would like to dilute it with Moru Kachiyathu, as the yoghurt cools down my tongue from the heat of this curry. If you're not left panting, sweating and with a running nose, then you have not done this right. ;-)
Traditionally, this fish curry is prepared in a Meen Chatti (a wide mouthed clay pot) on a gas stove. In my gradparents' homes, the meen chatti was placed on the support of two bricks on either side, and firewood burning underneath. This ancient cooking setup is also known as a Chulha in Hindi or Aduppu in Malayalam. Nowadays this method is discouraged because of the fire hazard and it's not a 'green' way of cooking due to the use of firewood. The Indian population could literally wipe out the remaining forests if they continue using firewood.
But since my stove is the electric coil type, I used a regular pot. A sauce pan, dutch oven or stock pot, take your pick. But they say that the real flavors come out, if it's made in this traditional earthenware, that's red or black in color. The first time I attempted to transport the meenchatti by air, (Kerala to Bangalore) it broke into several little pieces, thanks to the rough handling of the Indian ground staff. The second time, I wrapped it in several layers of clothes and placed it in the middle of my suitcase. The first thing I did after reaching my hotel room in the US, was to check the condition of this pot. Thankfully, it made it through the whole journey in one piece!
Another key ingredient in this curry is the Kudampuli (Gambooge in English, scientific name: Garcinia gummi-gutta). It gives the signature tangy flavor to this curry, and is often used in most seafood preparations in Kerala. I have not found this in any of the Indian stores here in NJ so far. A near but poor substitute for this would be Kokum (scientific name: Garcinia indica), which I did find in the Indian stores here. Both belong to the same plant genus Garcinia, part of the mangosteen family, but are just not the same!!
Thankfully, I did remember to bring 6 packets of these gems from India, enough to last me at least 2 years! As its used in its sun-dried form, these can last for a very long time, usually 2 to 3 years if stored in a cool, dry and dark place, like your kitchen cabinet. You can see how it looks like in my Chemmeen Peera post.
If you want to have the red color but not the heat, I suggest you use Kashmiri chilli powder, as its very low in heat, but high on the red color. I use the regular Indian chilli powder which has the same heat as cayenne pepper.
Also, the onions used in this curry are red pearl onions. It's never prepared with any other type of onion because it would have a sweetness to it. The red pearl onions are not sweet like the other varieties.
Fish is an integral part of a Keralite's diet. I don't remember a single day in my grand parents' house without this curry. If any visitor comes to the house, the main topic of discussion would be about what fish you got for the day. If you spot a neighbor pass by, they wouldn't greet you with the usual hi or hello. It would be 'what fish you got today?' If my grandfather does not get to eat fish curry and rice one day, he feels like he has not eaten anything. His face would be glum on the special days when Chicken Biryani or Onasadya (traditional vegetarian feast) is prepared. He needs his 'eriyum puliyum' meaning 'hot and sour' dose for the day. May his soul rest in peace. This is my mom's recipe.

Fish - 1/2 kg or 1 lb. (I used salmon this time, but you could use almost any fish, big or small for this curry)
Kudampuli (Gambooge) - 3 pieces
Red pearl onions - 4 or 5 (1/4 cup), sliced
Garlic - 4 large cloves, sliced
Ginger - 1 inch piece, chopped
Chilli powder - 2 tbsp
Coriander powder - 1 tsp
Turmeric powder - 1/4 tsp
Asafoetida - 1/3 tsp
Fenugreek seed powder - a pinch (optional)
Curry leaves - 1 sprig
Mustard seeds - 1 tsp
Fenugreek seeds - 1/2 tsp
Water - 1 cup
Oil - coconut, canola or sesame - 1 tbsp

Soak the kudampuli in a small bowl of warm water. Wash, clean and cut the fish into medium size chunks.
Heat oil in the pot on medium heat. When it heats up, add mustard seeds and wait for it to splutter. Then add the fenugreek seeds. Do not allow the fenugreek seeds to burn, as they easily do, or it would taste bitter. Couple of seconds later, add the pearl onions, ginger and garlic. Sauté till it turns brown.
In a small bowl, mix chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder and asofoetida with a tablespoon or two of water to form a thin paste.
Add this spice paste into the pot with the fried onions. Fry for a couple of minutes and you would surely cough and/or sneeze and/or your eyes could water at this point. Haha!
Now add the soaked kudampuli along with the water. Add salt and curry leaves, and give it a good mix. Now place the fish pieces in the pot, evenly distributed. Add enough water so that it just covers the fish pieces. It may look too watery now, but keep in mind that it would thicken over time especially if you store it in the refrigerator. Cover and just walk away. Let it cook for 10-15 minutes. You can also cook this uncovered for 20 minutes. Do not stir the curry after you've added the fish pieces. Its a no-no! The fish would crumble into pieces and would spoil the beauty of this curry. Uncover and simmer for another 5 minutes and its ready to be served!

Another interesting blog post about this fish curry is in Vazhayila - Sarah, the writer of this blog also talks about fish being a common topic of discussion in their neighborhood.