Malayali food is one of my very favourite cuisines and is one of the things I miss most about living in India. I don’t mean to suggest that I grew up eating Malayali food (Kerala is the state, the people, culture and food are Malayali; the language is Malayalam). Indeed, given how intensely regional Indian cultural identity is, and also how relatively recently it is that restaurants specializing in something other than the local cuisine, “Mughlai” cuisine and Indian-Chinese cuisine have begun to pop up in the major Indian metros, I didn’t really have too much of an opportunity to eat it. In fact, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I was really introduced to Malayali food. This happened at Malabar, a restaurant in Hauz Khas in Delhi that I would eat at often with friends from work. I left for the US shortly thereafter and on visits home seeking out Malayali food was a major highlight (though then it was to the Coconut Grove in the Ashok Yatri Niwas hotel that we’d go—see here for a brief account of a scandalous crime that resulted in the shutting down of the Ashok Yatri Niwas). These days there are lots of places to eat Malayali and other non-idli-dosa-sambhar South Indian foods in Delhi, but in the early ’90s there really weren’t and so there’s doubtless some element of exoticism in my attachment to Malayali food.
In the early, mid and even late ’90s in Los Angeles there wasn’t really much scope for cooking this food. For one thing, I didn’t have the first idea how to, and for another, it wasn’t easy then to find ingredients in Indian groceries for non-North Indian food. And, of course, the Indian restaurants in town had a tough enough time producing acceptable curry house fare, leave alone anything off the beaten track. Both problems disappeared in the early 2000s when ingredients for South Indian cooking started to become more widely available and Penguin India began to publish a wonderful series of regional cookbooks, especially in their Essential series. I own most of them: The Essential Andhra Cookbook, The Essential Sindhi Cookbook, The Essential North-East Cookbook; and with slightly different titles, The Calcutta Cookbook and Flavours of Delhi. These are truly essential books for anyone with a genuine interest in Indian food (and can probably all be found on Amazon). Quite apart from the wealth and range of recipes contained in them they also provide histories and larger contexts for the foods they describe.
My very favourites of these Penguin books, however, are two that focus on the food of Kerala, Mrs. K.M. Mathew’s classic, Flavours of the Spice Coast and Vijayan Kannampilly’s The Essential Kerala Cookbook. These are the most thumbed through and cooked from Indian cookbooks in my collection. As a Bengali it is to the fish recipes I return the most often and the recipe I have today is from The Essential Kerala Cookbook: for meen mapas or fish curry with coconut milk (meen=fish; mapas=dish with coconut milk). Vijayan identifies this as a Christian dish.
(As I am only replicating the ingredients list, and that not exactly, I think this falls within fair use.)
Ingredients (See Illustrated Guide Below)
- A little over 1 lb, meaty white fish, cut into chunks. (I used mahi mahi)
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds.
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds.
- About 1/2 cup chopped red onion. (The recipe calls for one medium onion, but Indian onions are quite a bit smaller than the monsters sold in American stores.)
- 4 Thai chillies, slit lengthwise.
- About 1.5 tblspns chopped garlic. (The recipe calls for 12 garlic cloves, but Indian garlic is also much smaller than American garlic.)
- About 1 tblspn chopped ginger.
- 1 large sprig curry leaves. (Available these days in any Indian grocery.)
- The following mixed together into a paste: 2 tsp of coriander powder, 1/2 tsp each of turmeric, red chilli powder and freshly ground black pepper and 4 tblspns of water.
- 3 petals of kokum torn up and soaked in 3/4 cup of water. (The recipe calls for cambodge but I’ve never seen it available. Kokum is closely related and these days found in most large Indian groceries, especially those catering to South Indian clienteles.)
- 3/4 cup thick coconut milk. (I use one of these 100% coconut milk tetrapaks from Aroy-D–more than 3/4 cup but then I usually scale the recipe up anyway.)
- Heat oil over medium heat in a deep pan (I prefer to use earthenware) and add the mustard seeds.
- When the mustard seeds start popping add the next six ingredients and saute till the onion becomes translucent.
- Now lower the heat, add the spice paste and saute over low heat, stirring continuously for a few minutes till the aroma changes. Don’t let the spices scorch.
- Add the kokum with its soaking liquid and raise the heat till it all comes to a boil.
- Add the fish and salt to taste and gently stir it in.
- Lower the heat, cover the pan and cook for about 5-7 minutes till the fish is cooked through.
- Add the coconut milk, raise the heat to medium and let it come to a boil and then remove the pan from the heat.
- Serve with steamed rice.
By the way, if you live in the Twin Cities area there is acceptable Malayali food available at Malabari Kitchen (see my review here).