NOTE: If you are looking for the popular Kerala’s signature version of the roasted fish wrapped in banana leaves, Meen Pollichathu, you may go directly to the recipe HERE.
One of our very dear friends mailed me sometime back, “ My friend here is all admiration for ur blog ;) Some recipes made her feel that you are a mallu christian, while some others like the vishu one gave her the Nair feel! “
Well, that pretty much sums up my family’s culinary religion and the culinary traditions I have inherited from both my paternal as well as maternal side. In both these families, food was the language and taste was the religion…………. I grew up seeing women on both side pampering their family and friends with food. Food was the focal point….a guest was always treated with a hot glass of steaming beverages, Chaaya/kaappi accompanied by an array of freshly made plantain fritters, Pazhampori or steamed cakes like, Vattayappam or deep fried lentil fritters like, Sukhiyan along with other bakery items………aunts exchanged gossips while stirring a scrumptious uruli of Pradhaman…….. kids woke up to the delicate aroma of steamed coconut and rice flour cake, Puttu followed by the irresistible and formidable fragrance of the roasted coconut simmering in Kadala Curry, a delicacy with black chickpeas………………..lunch boxes were filled with my mother’s leafy thin Chappathi, a flat wheat bread and rolled with the spicy Beef Fry……..birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated with a huge Chembu of lip smacking Chicken Biryani……… on weekends we gorged on the tantalizing Potato stew, Esthtu and the lacy crepes, Paalappam……………. uncles played a round of Rummy or 28, over bottles of toddy and a plate of fish fry , with the freshly caught fish from the pond, Kulam in the backyard of our ancestral home ……………maids shared stories from the market and neighborhood grating mounts of coconut and de-skinning and de-boning a raw chicken caught from our own yard…….newly weds were treated with gourmet rice bread, Pathiri and erachi curry, curried meats……
I remember, long back, one of my cousins from the paternal side making a casual remark with a hint of sarcasm,“ ……ohh….those from our native has this habit of over treating /entertaining the guests even if they are complete strangers”. Well, now when I look back, I am proud to be part of such a large family……men and women who became part of our paternal family, from central and northern part of Kerala brought their tasty culinary traditions too. My maternal grandma, a city dweller, had close associations with her Christian neighbors…....my parents had some Muslim friends from whom my mother learned their tasty secrets. That made my mother’s kitchen a melting pot of various styles of Kerala cuisine. Inevitably the food she cooked and the food we enjoyed at home was a representation of ‘Kerala Food’ in general and me and my brother relished each morsel without realizing that the dish plated in front of us was associated with a particular community or religion some 40-50 years back and now I consider that ignorance a pure bliss as it gave us the ability to approach food with only one criteria, the taste!!
Though the religious/community trademarks were never a point of interest to me, what really confused me was the difference in regional variations when it comes to cooking and the names of many common dishes. My mother is still a virgin in this department but as I started interacting with people from other parts of Kerala and reading through the food blogs around, I realized the extent of variations in different regions for the same dish. For example, for me and for most Keralites, the term ‘Pollichathu’ is associated with a central Kerala delicacy called Meen Pollichathu which is roasted fish wrapped in banana leaves. Surprisingly, at my paternal home, the term has been associated with another fish preparation which is cooked in a base of sliced tomatoes and crushed small onions and then simmered in the sauce until the sauce thickens and an oil coating appears on top. As I delved more into this aspect of same lingo used for two different preparations, CJJ pointed out that at his place, they have a different style of Pollichathu which is pan roasted and served in a coarse base of sliced big onions, tomatoes and spices. Phew, talk about naming problems!!!!
Well, Maththi/Chaala Thakkaali-yittu Pollichathu is basically curried sardines in a crushed onion and tomato base. Tomato acts as the flavoring as well as the souring agent. This is a style of cooking I have inherited from my father’s side and I find it a pleasant change from our usual kudam puli/Gamboge flavored fish curries or the ones in ground coconut base. Here’s my or rather my mother's interpretation of the same:
- 8 whole pieces of Sardines/Maththi/Chaala, cut and cleaned
- 6-8 small red pearl onions/Kunjulli, peeled
- 5 green chillies
- 1 small piece of ginger (approx. 1” length), peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 large juicy tomato, thinly sliced
- 2 sprigs of curry leaves
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 2 ½ to 3 tsp red chilly powder ( adjust according to individual tolerance)
- ¾ to 1 cup water
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- Salt to taste
- Crush the small red pearl onions/Kunjulli, ginger and green chillies, using a mortar and pestle. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle set, thinly slice each of these ingredients and spread it on a chopping board and crush with the round edge of the rolling pin or anything with which you can pound and get the same result.
- Heat oil, preferably in a ‘curry-chatti’, an earthenware from Kerala or a cooking pan; when the oil is medium hot, throw in half of the curry leaves, snipped off of its stem, and smear the entire ‘curry chatti’/pan with oil and curry leaves, so as to coat the cooking ware fully with the combined flavour and aroma of the oil and curry leaves; DO NOT skip this step. Next, add the crushed small onions, ginger and green chilies, and sauté until transparent; add the thinly sliced juicy tomatoes and cook in low flame. When the tomato slices are soft, add turmeric powder and red chilly powder and combine well; let it cook for 1-2 minutes or until the raw smell goes, in low flame itself. At this stage, spread the fish pieces on this bed of tomato and onion base and pour water, suggested in the recipe or just enough to cover the fish pieces; add salt and bring to a boil in medium heat. Once the fish almost done, do a taste test and adjust the salt and then in low flame, simmer the gravy, in low heat until the sauce begins to thicken a bit and oil coating starts to float on top. This process takes about 15 minutes during which time fish will be cooked fully; so you need to roughly calculate the time ahead for cooking the fish, to make sure that fish is not over cooked. Just 2 minutes before turning off the heat, tear of the rest of the curry leaves, take some oil in your palm and crush some curry leaves with oil and add it to the dish, which accentuates the aroma, flavour and ‘the look’ of the dish. Turn off the stove and let it cool.
- Serve with rice or chappathi.
See you all next week!