Friday, March 13, 2009

Fish & Fruit Curries

We've been eating an awful lot of fish.

Karimeen. Kingfish. Snapper. Pomfret. Squid. Prawns, You name it. If it swims, it's terrified of us. Cochin is truly one of the best places in the world to eat seafood. There is just such a huge variety of it, and it's always available fresh daily at the market. There's even an extensive network of fish home-delivery men that ply their trade in residential neighbourhoods. They creak and wheeze down the potholed back lanes on wobbly-tired vintage pre-war bicycles that have large plastic containers filled with ice, fish, and ancient rusty balance beam scales strapped to the back. They honk these distinctive little air horns attached to the front handlebars to let the residents know that a fish dinner is within their grasp. If Harpo Marx sold fish, this is how he would do it.

I took advantage of this service for the first time last week. I was having my morning chai when I heard landlord Stanley's voice outside. "Robert!" he intoned. "Stanley!" I shot back, by now used to this kind of exchange. He calls me by my first name, thinking it's my last, and I call him by his last name, thinking it's his first. "Come!" he said. I wandered outside to meet him. We shook hands in greeting. I looked at him expectantly. He simply said "Man come". I interpreted this as an instruction to await the arrival of someone very important. A few minutes of awkward silence, punctuated by the odd head wiggle, and then the Prawn Man pulled up on his bicycle, the melting ice dripping out of the back of his large blue plastic container so that he left a trail like a slug.

The Prawn Man pulled a beat up blue tarp from the back of his bike and spread it out on the ground, revealing a plethora of fresh prawns nestled in chunks of rapidly meting ice. The store was open. I decided to step back and let my homeboy Stanley deal with the negotiations. A couple of minutes of rapid-fire Malayalam later, and I was left holding 2 kilos of fresh prawns that I had exchanged for about 260 rupees. The Prawn Man pedaled, squeaked, honked, and dripped his way further down the lane. "Cool!" I thought to myself. I didn't even have to make a phone call. Telepathic prawn delivery.

Later that day we went to film another great cooking episode with our friend Chitra. Chitra has just started her own catering company called "Mayden Treats", and has moved her cooking facilities to a rented apartment that is in the same office complex that her husband Gee occupies with his Ayurvedic "relationship enhancement" business. That's a hard business to be in when your market is mostly soft. Chitra was making a spicy red fish curry for us, and also another regional specialty: sweet mango curry. Her kitchen is small for a commercial operation, but if her cooking is any indicator, she will soon occupy the whole building!

The mango curry is very simple. Freshly peeled small raw mangoes, which are just coming into season now, are simply cooked with a few spices and curd. I'm embarrassed to say that I was so busy filming and watching sound levels that I don't remember the recipe precisely. I would have to go and review the tape to provide the whole thing accurately. That will come later. All I can tell is that it was very fast, and very very good! Savoury, sweet, and a bit sour all at the same time.

The fish curry was a great version of a true Kerala classic. This was made in a "mud pot", which is a thick ceramic pot you can place directly on the flame. It definitely adds to the taste of the dish. Once again, the accurate recipe will follow once I review the tape, but suffice to say that lots of red chili powder and turmeric are mixed with a little water to form a thick paste, which was then cooked with onion, coconut oil, fenugreek, black mustard seeds, and curry leaves. To this was added some coconut milk, water, salt, and the real star of the show, Kokum, or fish tamarind. This is a special kind of tamarind that has been dried and smoked, and it's actually a different plant than the usual tamarind that we cook with. It's a souring agent like the regular kind, but it's the smoke that gives a very unique kind of flavour to the dish. It's as different from regular tamarind as a fresh jalapeno pepper is to a chipotle chili. The dish will simply not taste authentic without it. Once everything gets cooked up, the fish, in this case snapper, gets gently placed in the pot so that it gets basically poached in the fiery smoky red sauce. Like everything Chitra makes, it was unbelievably good.

The unexpected star of the show, however, was a little snack/condiment that she quickly whipped up. Dried shrimp cooked with onion and curry leaves. Rinse a couple of cups of small dried shrimp to remove the excess salt and dust (shrimp are dried outdoors on large tarps or cement). Fry a couple of sliced small red onions in some coconut oil until they start to brown. Sprinkle a spoonful of turmeric and a spoonful of chili powder over the shrimp (maybe some black pepper too if you're feeling bold). Fry the shrimp with the onion and a handful of curry leaves until the whole thing dries out a little and the onions are nice and golden brown. Let them cool in a bowl, and serve as a condiment. It's great as a snack with a glass of cold beer too!

By the time all the food was done, I could hardly wait to sample everything. The smells were enough to make me barely be able to concentrate on filming. Chitra made some simple rice to go along with everything, and we all tucked in for a hearty lunch. Chitra kindly gave us a little care package of each item to take home and share. Then it was back home to cook the prawns I had bought the same morning.

Oi, such a lot of fish!

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