The second person who can make me hungry and smack my lips is my father........someone who relishes each and every morsel he puts in his mouth and he got lucky the day he married my mother who always made sure that she served his favourite dishes all the time. It could be a plate of humble Puttu drizzled with golden ghee and sprinkled with some sugar or a bowl of grainy avalose-podi mashed with ripe banana and sugar or a plate of his favourite fish, Karimeen/Pearlspot stewed in spicy coconut milk sauce...........the way he relished his food was always tempting to me......the way he took a small fistful of rice and dipped the same carefully into the fish curry served on a side plate made me drool ....I would be eating the same food sitting right across him but I just didn't seem to get the taste or the sensation he was experiencing........Seeing him holding that small side plate in both his hands and the way he slurped the spicy coconut milk sauce from it made me feel miserable and I started copying whatever he did to experience the same taste sensation he was enjoying ......that was the turning point for the foodie in me.......... that's when I started distinguishing the taste and flavour of fish cooked in coconut milk sauce.......thats when I experienced the taste of fleshy Karimeen fried in flavourful coconut oil ........and soon, like my father, I fell in love with Karimeen/Pearlspot, a variety of fish my mother bought irrespective of its price.
Seeing our family love for Karimeen, CJJ once made a casual remark about a preparation his mother used to mention....Karimeen Pappas, a preparation from Kuttanadu, from the backwaters of Kerala. Till then, I had not even heard of such a name and it was naturally intriguing. Considering the fact that Karimeen was a delicacy that was not spotted in the Indian stores in our vicinity, I did not bother to learn much about this dish. But quite surprisingly, on one of our road trips to Chicago, we got a packet of frozen Karimeen exported from Kerala , from an Indian store and I grabbed the packet the moment I saw it. I re-created all my favourite Karimeen preparations from my mother's kitchen and finally I was left with just one fish and that's when I remembered this particular preparation CJJ mentioned long back. So on one of our recent telecons with CJJ's grandma, my Kuttandan culinary Queen, I enquired her about Karimeen Pappas after discussing everything from family stuff to Condoleezza Rice's recent India visit and the current job loss problems!!
Grandma painted a rough picture of this preparation and with a couple more inputs from her daughter, that is my mother -in-law, I ventured to cook up a dish I had not even seen or tasted till that day and I ended up with one of the tastiest Karimeen preparations I have enjoyed. I don't know if this is how it is supposed to look like as at this point, I do not have the option of sharing this picture with my in-laws to get approval but this is my interpretation of their words, of their explanation of this country-style dish.
- 1 medium size whole Karimeen/Pearlspot (scales, guts and gills removed and cleaned thoroughly)
- 1tsp red chilly powder
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Oil for pan-frying (around 4tbsp)
- A handful of thinly sliced red big onion
- 1 tbsp ginger , thinly sliced
- 6-9 Indian green chillies, cut lengthwise ( adjust as per your taste)
- 1 sprig of curry leaves
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- ¼ to ½ tsp coriander powder
- ¼ to ½ tsp powdered fennel seeds/Perinjeerakam
- 3 thinly sliced rounds of tomato (half of a small tomato)
- 1 cup coconut milk, with medium consistency (neither thin nor thick)*
- 2-3 drops of vinegar ** ( like eye drops)
- 2 ½ tbsp coconut oil
- Make 3-4 slits on both the sides of cleaned Karimeen/Pearlspot to let the fish absorb the spices of marinade.
- Make a marinade with chilly powder, pepper powder, turmeric, salt and lemon juice and smear it well on both the sides of fish and leave it on the kitchen counter for 45 minutes.
- Heat oil in a shallow pan and when oil is hot, place Karimeen/Pearlspot gently and shallow fry at low-medium heat, by flipping each side, when it is done. It takes me about 4 minutes for each side for this particular fish.
- In a 'curry-chatti'/earthenware or any cooking pan, heat coconut oil and swirl the cooking vessel to coat the entire cooking area of pan. Tear off curry leaves and add to the hot oil and with a spatula, smear the cooking vessel again with the coconut oil infused with curry leaves. DO NOT skip this technique as it does add a lot of flavour while cooking, especially if you re using a curry-chatti. Now add thinly sliced onion and let it cook till soft; then add thinly sliced ginger and green chillies and cook till everything is soft and transparent. Sprinkle turmeric powder followed by coriander powder and powdered fennel seeds and stir for 30-40 seconds. Now place the thinly sliced tomato rounds on this onion base as a bed for fish and keep the lid and cook for a minute. Now take off the lid and place the fried fish gently and pour coconut milk and, keep the lid back and bring to a boil in medium heat. When it starts to boil, add salt, swirl the pan gently and let it simmer for another 5 minutes, in low heat. Do a taste-test, adjust salt if required and turn off the stove if gravy has blended well with fish and spices and finish off the cooking with a dash of 2-3 small drops of vinegar. Let it rest for minimum 40-60 minutes before serving. It helps fish to marry the sauce and balance the flavours.
- Serve with Paalappam, white bread, chappathi, Idiappam or rice
*For the coconut milk part, you may extract Thanipaal/thick coconut milk first, then extract Randaampaal/thin coconut milk and instead of adding medium consistency milk, you may add Randaampaal/thin coconut milk first and bring to a boil and then add Thanipaal/thick coconut milk. But here in this dish, since we re not cooking the fish longer, as it is already pan-fried, it is ok to pour medium consistency coconut milk once and stop with that.
**Grandma suggested using either tomato or vinegar for sourness . I added both in small quantities as we prefer the combined taste of tomato and vinegar but pls make sure it is just SMALL drops of vinegar (like eye -drops). You may also use raw green mango slice in place of tomato and vinegar.
Grandma also suggested adding a pinch or two of red chilly powder along with ground fennel and coriander but I stayed away from using it as I already used enough chilly powder to fry the fish and balanced the heat with more green chillies; but addition of a small amount of chilly powder sure gives a subtle yet attractive shade to this curry.
Verdict: With hands gently moving around his bloated tummy, I heard CJJ murmuring in the background, "ennatha nalla bhakshanam-aayirunnu…" meaning " that was good food ..." :) I think the word 'delicacy' is ideal for this dish. The lingering taste was that of the creaminess of coconut milk perfumed with the sweetened scents of fennel and an undertone of black pepper from the fried fish pairing beautifully with the mild heat from green chillies………all these flavours are spruced up with the a very subtle hint of acidity and sourness from tomato and vinegar………we re sad we don't have a single piece of Karimeen/Pearlspot left in the freezer to make this dish again….Hope we get lucky soon!!