The October air is spectacularly clammy in Doha. Frizzy, floppy haired women and drenched T-shirted men are a regular sight, despite all the anti-persperants and frizze ease serums available. The humidity leaves you sapped of energy, devoid of appetite and yet one must cook and eat.
It’s at times like this that I turn to the food of Kerala. It is after all, of a tropical climate, with lashing monsoon summers, drenching the evergreen state. The food is lighter, the curries more liquid and rice provides the energy boost. Keralites, well, most Indians actually, have proper full blown cooked meals for lunch every afternoon. Coming back from school, my sister and I would roll our eyes at the sight of my mother’s (excellent) turmeric fish curry. My father, though a man of vast culinary tastes, preferred a simple fish based lunch every afternoon and this curry was his favourite. Which means we had to endure pretty much the same dish constantly. Much as I cringed and cursed silently through my school years, I would have given anything for a taste of it after I moved to Aberdeen. It would have cured many a woeful, teary, cold night.
Back to this hot, blistering day, I wanted something light, but with punch. Having some fresh local hammour fillets (of the grouper family), Meen Pappas came to mind. The recipe is from Das Sreedharan’s excellent book, Fresh flavours of India. The title is a bit misleading, in that, the book is solely based on food from Kerala. I adore it, the recipes are authentic, tasty, healthy and varied. I wouldn’t shy from cooking for my Ma from this book.
This particular one is a rustic, simple, peasant food like curry and one would not traditionally offer it to guests coming for dinner. And yet it is the one I love, because of its simplicity. It is packed full of earthy notes from the masala of onions, ginger and garlic with the tartness of the tomatoes, nuttiness from the curry leaves and a fair bit of heat from the chillies, all of which are tempered by the coconut. Vinegar, added at the end, makes it sing. Trust me. Add some fresh coriander too, if it takes your fancy. It does call for mincing freshly grated coconut, but honestly, you could use canned coconut milk too. Which is what I do sometimes when grinding coconuts seems a task too far. You make a masala, add some water, then the fish and the ground coconut. If using the canned milk, omit the water, and just add the canned milk to your desired amount. To get ahead, make the curry early and keep aside. When you are ready to serve, reheat the curry, then cook the fish. I would use any firm white fillet you can get your hands on. Prawns too would be a lovely addition, or used by itself. Really, make it your own.
Also, at the supermarket, I spied some tindli, a small cucumber like vegetable in miniature form. It kind of tastes like a courgette but with the bite and crunch of a cucumber. I hadn’t eaten it in years and suddenly had a craving, just by looking at them. This way of doing it, relies on mustard seeds and curry leaves to flavour the vegetable, without the use of any spice. A flurry of grated coconut is added at the end, to freshen things up and provides a gritty texture. This treatment of vegetables is rather common in the South and will give you an interesting introduction to it, if you are only familiar with richer, spice based North Indian food.
Some plain yoghurt and date pickle on the side, and you have a light, flavourful, healthy meal that won’t leave you in a food induced coma. I think my father would be proud. And then, he’d probably ask for Ma’s turmeric curry. In fact, that’s the one and only thing he has recommended blogging about. There are some things, you just can’t change! Until then, there is Meen Pappas.