There are so many festivities this time of the year, I realize I haven’t posted anything simple, or laid-back, for a while now.
High on my list of comfort food would be something pretty traditional from the coastal idyll of my roots. Fish and seafood, for example, would be perfect as my homeland—Kerala—is particularly known for its brilliant seafood delicacies. It makes me smile in reminiscence of the visit from the fishmonger carrying a basket of daily catch balanced on their head, letting out a long howl at the top of their voice, koooooooo…, announcing their arrival. It is a different scenario these days where they turn up on bicycles or mopeds honking their arrival in the neighborhood. People living in towns invariably go to fish markets or supermarkets to buy seafood.
Seafood is brain food. You know that, right?
I'm sharing a quick-fix fish curry that adorns our lunch table very often; an absolute favorite with the family. I used Sultan Badi, a white fleshy fish, locally available in Doha stores. Any firm white-fleshed fish will work here, or even prawns, or whatever is freshest at the market.
This earthy, soup-like curry is robustly flavored with creamy coconut milk, and basted in coconut oil. Aromatics like chili, turmeric, ginger, garlic and curry leaves are the base of the gravy cooked in a traditional earthern pot made from red clay. The other key ingredient that imparts a unique flavor is kodampuli. Also know as gambodge, it is a sundried fruit the size of small orange, used as a souring agent, particularly in fish curries, in Kerala. It has a very strong stench and slightly smoky flavor. All these ingredients when cooked together creates a highly satisfying result, and the cooking vessel—clay pot—uplifts the flavors.
Outcome? Something rich, pungent and totally delicious.. mmm.
Now if there is one defining staple that I cannot do without in my pantry, it’s the curry leaf. I’m highly addicted to using curry leaves in my cooking. There’s nothing like frying freshly plucked leaves in a bit of fat—preferably coconut oil—along with toasted black mustard seeds and dry red chilies for adding a unique wallop to traditional dishes. Almost all Kerala dishes are flavored by this simple yet ingenious technique known as katuku-varakkal in Malayalam. It’s not only comforting; it’s pure bliss, hands down.
See, curry leaf has no relation to the commercial curry powder available in the supermarket shelves. Oh yeah. It’s simply an aromatic herb, called karivepila in Malayalam, with almond shaped dark green leaves that are added to dishes for an appealing savory fragrance. Besides its culinary uses, Ayurvedic medicine uses curry leaves and the stem of this shrub for medicinal purposes.
Okay, I’m not going to linger long. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who is celebrating.
Before I leave you with this delicious curry, a note of caution: don’t use sweetened Thai canned milk available in stores, for this preparation. Ideally go for Indian or Sri Lankan products that are not so sweet. The curry is a bit on the spicier side. If you prefer it milder, omit the green chilies and add more coconut milk to adjust the taste.
Claypot fish curry with coconut milk
250g fish, cleaned and sliced into bite size portions
2 ½ tablespoon coconut oil, divided
half of one small onion, thinly sliced
1 large tomato, halved and quartered
8 fresh curry leaves
1 green chili, slit lengthwise
½ teaspoon ginger-garlic paste
2 ½ teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
2 ½ cups water
2 medium pieces kudampuli or kokum, briefly rinsed and soaked in hot water for 5 minutes
½ cup coconut milk (I used canned milk without diluting it)
Heat 1 ½ tablespoon oil in a clay pot or manchatti, over medium-low heat. Gently fry the onion for about 2 minutes. Tip in tomatoes, slit chili, and gently bruised or torn curry leaves. Cook everything together until tomatoes become saucy, for about 3 minutes. Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for a minute, then tip in chili powder and turmeric. Wet the masala with a generous drizzle of oil and stir fry for few seconds.
Pour in water along with kudampuli and its soaking liquid; bring everything to boil over high heat. Add fish, and season to taste. Bring the curry to boil before reducing heat to medium-high. Cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, to give flavors time to meld and the fish enough time to soak in the spices.
Finally, stir in coconut milk and simmer for 2 more minutes. Adjust seasoning. Drizzle the rest of the oil over the curry, remove pot from heat and sit for 5 minutes.
Serve hot with a bowl of steamed rice, crusty bread, or chappati—whatever you fancy.