My mother has been cooking pretty much her whole life, and is the biggest influence in my cooking. Her mastery over spices and heat (temperature) is exemplary. Over the years I have kind of understood and incorporated her sense of spices into my own cooking, but much to my chagrin I still struggle to get the control she has over temperatures. If there are two dishes that exemplifies her skills it is the fried fish, and fish curry – especially the fried fish.
With the perfect amount of spice and fried in the minimalist of oil with no breading or coating, the exterior has the crunch of a cornflake, is non-greasy, and the inside is perfectly cooked through without being hard and rubbery. It is so addictive that when I am at home with my parents I eat fried fish straight out of bed, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes even as a tea snack. Trust me – there is nothing better than fried fresh sardines and hot masala chai. And of course being Keralites does not help either – fish is part of our integral diet. I occasionally protest the omnipresence of fish in the house, but that is just for me to feel guilty in consuming so much fish.
Said that my mom and her cooking kind of follows the Malayalam proverb – “Eriyan ariyavunnavanu koni kodukkilla“, which roughly translates into – “The man who knows how to throw the stick, never gets the right stick”. All her knowledge about her cooking is pretty much embedded in her brain. She has no written recipes, and getting a recipe or measure from her is probably tougher than writing a 5000 line software code. Whenever I ask her how much she added – the answer is always standard – “a little bit here and there”. She never follows a standardized measure – it is improvisation all the time. She constantly tastes the spices in a dish – during marination, as the dish goes on to the stove, half way through, before tempering, after tempering…. By the time a dish is complete she probably consumes a tablespoon of spice itself. She does have a logic to why she never standardizes the spice mix – it very hard in India to get the same spice with the same heat a second time.
Here are couple of recipes, which I got to write after sitting with her for an hour and cajoling to put the ingredients in measurable content.
1. 1/2 kilo (one pound) seerfish
2. 4-5 curry leaves diced very fine
3. 1 teaspoon (tsp) turmeric powder
4. 1 tsp black pepper powder
5. 2 tsp chilli powder
6. salt to taste
7. oil (vegetable/grapeseed)
Cut fish steaks about 1 inch thick. Mix all ingredients and marinate the fish and let it sit aside for 30 minutes at a small tilt to drain off any excess water. Heat oil in a non-stick frying pan at a low temperature and cook till the outside turns golden brown and inside is cooked through.
The marinade for the prawns is pretty much the same as for the fish. The only addition is crushed ginger. Set aside the marinated prawns for about 30 minutes. Fry the prawns about 3-4 minutes on each side (depending on the size of the prawns)
1. 1/2 kilo fish (pomfret)
1. 1/2 diced onion
2. 3 green chillies
3. 2-3 curry leaves
4. 1-2 diced Malabar tamarind (Garcinia cambogia)
5. 1 teaspoon (tsp) vegetable oil
Mash the mariande and add fish to it. Let it sit for about 15-30 minutes
Paste (for sauce)
1. small piece of ginger
2. 1/2 onion
3. 2-3 curry leaves
4. 1/4 shredded coconut
6. 3 tsp coriander powder
6. 1 tsp chilli powder
7. 1 tsp turmeric powder
Add all the ingredients for sauce in a blender and puree. Add the puree to fish, with about 1/2 cup of water and salt to taste. Boil for 10-15 minutes till fish is cooked and tender. The flesh should be firm and not fall apart
1. 1 small fine diced onion
2. 2-3 curry leaves
3. 1 tsp chilli powder
4. 1-2 tsp oil
Fry till the onion in oil till golden brown. Add curry leaves and stir fry for 1 minute. Lower the heat and add chilli powder.
Add the fish curry to the tempering. Serve with rice or roti.
Two of my favorite fishes – sadly hard to get in the US.