This recipe is taken from one of my very favourite Indian cookbooks, Mrs. K.M. Mathew’s Flavours of the Spice Coast. A classic, published in 2002 by Penguin India, though written/compiled over a long period of time before that, it contains a large number of recipes, non-vegetarian and vegetarian, from Kerala. I regard it with the same kind of affection I have for my copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and it is the only other cookbook on my shelves that I’ve thumbed through as often. That’s not to say that the two books are equivalent. For one thing, Flavours of the Spice Coast is not quite as comprehensive in its coverage of recipes. For another, it contains far less additional information on the recipes themselves (unlike in Vijayan’s The Essential Kerala Cookbook, you will not be told which community a particular recipe comes from). And finally, the recipes are not always terribly precise—you will sometimes get the feeling that a step or two might have been omitted or misheard in the transcription. Here’s the kicker though: every recipe I’ve made from this book has been dynamite. Buy it now, before going on to read the rest of this post; you won’t regret it.
Though this is Mrs. Mathew’s best-known English language cookbook, she was far from a first-time writer when it appeared. Her first recipe appeared in the pages of Malayala Manorama in 1953 and she had published more than twenty cookbooks prior to this one. That recipe, for mutton, was one of the earliest to appear in print in Kerala and it inaugurated a career in which Mrs. Mathew both inspired and taught generations of home cooks in Kerala and popularized the cuisine in kitchens beyond Kerala. She was also a journalist of some note. She was the founder editor of Vanitha, one of the leading women’s magazines in India, and won a number of major awards for her journalism. She was truly one of the most important figures in Kerala society in the second half of the twentieth century (she passed away in 2003 at the age of 81), her influence extending far beyond the world of food. You can’t say that of too many famous cookbook writers.
The recipe I have today from Flavours of the Spice Coast is one of our family favourites. In the book it is listed as “Spicy Curried Dumplings”; I’m calling it a meatball curry. It is a bit fussy but the fuss is so worth it. Make it once and it will become part of your repertoire as well. I have rewritten an aspect of the ingredients list: it is one of the idiosyncrasies of Mrs. Mathew’s book that she uses not just teaspoons as measures but also dessertspoons—this despite the fact that a dessertspoon is listed as being equivalent to two teaspoons in the back of the book; I have recast everything into teaspoons. The language of the “Preparation” section, and the notes are entirely mine.
For the meatballs (more or less)
- 1 lb minced meat; goat is ideal, beef will be fine too
- 1 tspn hot chilli powder
- 4 tspns coriander powder
- 1/2 tspn turmeric powder
- 1/4 tspn ground pepper
- 1/4 tspn cumin seed
- 2″ piece of cinnamon/cassia bark
- 2 green cardamom pods
- 1/2 tspn aniseed or fennel seeds
- 4 tspns minced shallots
- 1 tspn minced Thai chillies
- 1 tspn chopped ginger
- 1 tspn chopped garlic
Grind everything from the chilli powder to the aniseed to a fine powder; set two tspns of the ground spices aside for the meatballs and reserve the rest for use in the gravy.
For the gravy
- 1/4 cup sliced onion
- 1/4 tspn sliced garlic
- 1 tspn julienned ginger
- 4 Thai chilies, slit lengthwise
- 2 tspns vinegar
- One large sprig’s worth of curry leaves
- 2 cups of coconut milk (see Notes)
- Vegetable oil
- Mix the ground meat with two teaspoons of powdered spices and the minced shallots and chillies and chopped ginger and garlic from the first part of the ingredients list. Shape into 12-14 meatballs and set aside on a plate.
- Heat the oil in a pan that will be able to take all the meatballs in one layer and saute together the onions, garlic, ginger and chillies from the second part of the ingredients list.
- When the onions begin to brown add the rest of the powdered spices from the first part of the ingredients list. Mix
and saute well over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly so the spices do not scorch.
- Add the coconut milk, the vinegar, the salt and the curry leaves.
- As the gravy comes to a boil, gently add the meatballs.
- Shake the pan from time to time to roll the meatballs evenly in the gravy and cook over medium-low heat till the gravy has thickened and the meatballs are done (15-20 minutes).
- Serve with rice.
- The recipe calls for 2 cups of thin coconut milk and 1/2 cup of thick coconut milk. Unless you are an expert at extracting your own coconut milk this is not going to be terribly pertinent. If you do extract your own coconut milk you should add the 2 cups of thin coconut milk in the fourth step and add the 1/2 cup of thick coconut milk right before taking it off the heat (you’d add the thick coconut milk after the gravy has reduced, bring
everything to a boil and take it off the heat). Me, I just use two 250 ml boxes of my favourite Aroy-D 100% coconut milk and add it all at once. If you want to follow the original please keep in mind that it uses the 225 ml cup measure.
- Don’t pack the meatballs too tightly as you shape them.
- You can make this more or less spicy by using a hot or mild chilli powder or by using milder green chillies. We like it very hot though as it works really well with the tang from the vinegar and the mellowing coconut milk.
- By the way, for a super-hot variation you can just leave the coconut milk out completely and add 1.5 cups of water instead. If you do this cook it covered so the water doesn’t completely evaporate before the meatballs are done.