Late one morning when I was in Kerala, I heard a female voice call into my aunt's dining room window. My aunt hollered back something about fish and headed to the doorway just outside the kitchen. I followed her, intrigued by the casual, yet intimate exchange. When I arrived, Martha lifted a wide aluminum vessel from her head and set it down in front of us. Nestled inside were several varieties of fish, including the region's much beloved karimeen (or pearl spot). Like the fresh fish I happened upon in markets across Kerala, their eyes were clear and their bodies, plump.
Martha, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
Kerala has a zig-zag of lakes and rivers and a coastline that hugs that Arabian Sea for hundreds of miles. So living off the land includes daily doses of fish for many Malayalees. During my stay, fish with green mangoes, coconut milk, or chili sauce, and shrimp with tamarind, all made it to the table. Yet, what I really crave, months later, are mathi (sardines). My aunts marinated them with chili powder, garlic powder, and turmeric and fried the fish to a crisp. Memories of pairing mathi with a canvass of parboiled rice and a ladling of fresh yogurt still call me today.
On my last day in Kerala, my cousins took me to Kumarakom, a dreamy resort town in the backwaters. At the Kumarakom Club, my eldest cousin Reena ordered two specialty dishes: duck with gravy and karimeen pollichathu (fish roasted in a banana leaf). When the food arrived, she unwrapped three of the fish and placed the fourth one in front of me. As a guest, I didn't have to share. As I pulled back the corners of the banana leaf, the smell of black pepper, ginger, and garlic rose to my nose. Using my fingers, I scooped up a bit of the flesh. The outer edge had a thin crust. Inside, the flesh was tender and moist. I was grateful to have an entire fish, so exquisitely prepared, to myself.
Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
We ended the afternoon with a houseboat ride along the lake. I'd had many dazzling adventures in India, but this finale on the water was the most enchanting. For an hour, we meandered through a carpet of frilly green water hyacinths. Lanky coconut trees lazed about, beckoning us to be still. Their wispy leaves lifted and fell with the breeze. Everything in the hidden water world moved more slowly - the paddle boats, the birds, even the children splashing along the shoreline.
Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
(COPYRIGHT CARDAMOM KITCHEN 2009)
Serves 6 to 8
One of the most appealing things about everyday Kerala cooking is how I feel once I've left the table. With a reliance on spices rather saturated fat, the fish dishes in particular, leave me feeling replenished not weighed down. Try this recipe for fish with turmeric for a nourishing meal.
2 tablespoons canola oil or olive oil
3/4 cup onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 small jalapeno, cut lengthwise
1 medium tomato, cut into wedges
1 pound Catfish or Tilapia fillets, cut into roughly 3-inch pieces
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk or coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon vinegar
Heat the oil in a saucepan on medium-low heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno. Cook until the onions becomes translucent.
Add the tomato and cook until it begins to soften.
Add the fish. Cook for about 5 minutes.
Add the water, turmeric, cumin, and salt, and stir gently.
Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium. Cover and cook until the fish flakes (about 10 minutes).
Reduce the heat to low. Add the milk and cook for 2 more minutes.
Remove from heat. Sprinkle in the vinegar. Tilt the pot to the left and right to distribute the vinegar.
Serve with rice and steamed peas.