Keralan Stew

If ever there was an internationally recognised doyenne of Indian food, it’s Madhur Jaffery. As a teenager, I stumbled across her programmes when satellite TV finally reached Abu Dhabi air space. I remember feeling like I was caught off-guard, blind sided and utterly mesmerized by this well-spoken, articulate, classy Indian ‘Aunty’. It was the first time I had seen an Indian woman, complete with sari and bindhi, represented so gracefully on the international screen and I admired her. She was straight spoken, but never condescending, her tone was that of an enthusiastic clever teacher, charming the viewer with her wit and her cooking. Her confidence and knowledge engaged your trust.

She caught me off-guard again, when I stumbled onto her Keralan Stew recipe in her book, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Staring me in the face was a favourite childhood, but long forgotten dish of aromatically spiced coconut milk, meat and potatoes. A host of memories came frantically thundering out as I recalled the the scent of the ‘eshstew’ at the family table on a weekend morning. I had meat, potatoes, carrots, the right spices and crucially, a pile of fresh curry leaves; the stars were aligned.

Lay aside assumptions of rich tomato-onion based masalas and instead think of aromatic subtlety. This stew is usually a special-occasion breakfast/brunch dish particularly favoured by the Christian community of the southern end of Kerala. The vegetarian version is what Southerners eat during normal weekends, when mothers are not constrained by the arrival time of the school bus hurtling down the road to collect her dosa loving children. It’s pure tropical Kerala flavourings- coconut milk, curry leaves, green cardamom, black peppercorns and cassia. Traditionally, and most deliciously, it is served with hoppers/appams, a lacy-edge, fluffy-centred, rice based pancake that resembles a sombrero. If that wasn’t around, I loved eating it with plain ol’ plastic white bread. Or baps. Or basmati rice. It didn’t matter what went with it as long as I got the ‘Eshtew’!

As per Madhur Jaffery’s recipe, I used meat, but the more correct goat meat or mutton as we call it, as opposed to her lamb. I think I went slightly mad while the aromas were wafting out of the pot. Such a wonderfully hedonistic use of curry leaves! As with anything loved in childhood, the hopeful anticipation of its equal pleasure as an adult is nerve racking; if this failed, the taste would be bitter indeed. I made the meat version here, but know that the vegetarian stew is the most common on a weekly basis. I have provided the vegetarian version below.

The coconut milk you use is all important. Without question, freshly squeezed coconut milk gives a flavour that tinned coconut milk cannot aspire to reach, ever. It’s not only flavour but texture too. Indians press the coconut a few times (usually three) to get a thick, creamy milk with the first press and thinner milk with the second and third. Food is usually cooked in the thin milk and then enriched with the thick towards the end of the cooking time. This gives the finished stew a satisfying smooth velvetiness and makes thrifty use of the hard pressed nut. It is also why this curry is reserved for special occasions. Coconuts make you work mercilessly for their hard covered, sweet flesh.

Kerala Stew The Patterned PlateFor all the preaching I do here though, I did used tinned coconut milk, simply because squeezing coconut flesh was pushing the patience of my greed too far that morning! Whatever you do, please do not use light coconut milk. That stuff is, frankly, vile. Find a good brand and shake the can gently. If it’s sloshing around it means the milk is quite thin. If it glugs lazily, then you know you have a decent bit of cream to work with. If you want go light, do as you choose, but it will affect the flavour. You have been warned!

Fresh curry leaves are vital here and underpin the entire dish. There is no other ingredient that can substitute its unique burnt-citrus, savoury-spice flavour profile. I have never cared for the freeze dried versions either. If you do have an Indian greengrocers within reachable distance, buy a medium amount (if still attached to the stalks, so much the better) and freeze them in double freezer bags, where they will keep well for 4-5 weeks.

I couldn’t stop smiling as I ate this. I felt like a child again, sat at the cherry wood varnished round dining table of our home in Abu Dhabi, table laid, hands washed and short legs dangling waiting for mum to bring the blue edged, white bowl of Eshtew and a platter of fluffy appams. I ate and ate till I was fit to burst, my stomach laying swollen on my then-skinny frame. I remember searching for the large bones in the bowl to suck the marrow out of while viciously swatting my younger sister’s hands away. This stew is representative of all the flavours I love about the food I grew up with.

Lil Lassie, ever the scowler with an Indian meal, liked this enough to eat without too much complaint. Lil Loon on the other hand, guzzled his portion, complete with lifting the bowl to his mouth when my back was turned, to finish off the remnants he had trouble scooping with a spoon. Suffice to say he loved it and has repeatedly asked for the ‘Indian meat soup’. If you have a nervous curry eater, this would a good place to start a non-threatening introduction. This is the food of family celebrations, of births, christenings and Christmas. Nothing but wholesomeness and comfort.

Keralan Meat Stew

From the book by Madhur Jaffrey. “At Home with Madhur Jaffrey

60ml neutral tasting oil (I used coconut oil)
Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
10 whole cloves
10 cardamom pods, lightly cracked
1 large red onion, chopped finely
20 or so fresh curry leaves
2 teaspoons very finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 kilo stewing lamb (or, see below for vegetarian version)
500gm boiling potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut crossways into 1½-inch segments
1¾ teaspoon salt
¼–½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
750ml warm water
320ml full-fat coconut milk from a well-shaken can
2 fat green chillies, slit halfway and deseeded (optional)

Heat the oil on medium-high heat in a large, heavy saucepan with a lid. When hot, add the cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and let it sizzle for a few seconds. Add the onions and fry until they are a light golden brown. Add the curry leaves and ginger, and stir fry for a minute before adding the lamb cubes. Stir around for 4 minutes, add 750mls of water and bring to the boil. Put the lid on, lower the heat right down and let it cook for 30 minutes.

Add the potatoes, carrots, salt, and cayenne. Mix well, bring to the boil and again, cover, turn heat to low, and cook 40 minutes or until the meat is tender. Add the coconut milk and crush a few of the potato pieces against the sides of the pan to thicken the sauce. Stir well, let it come to the boil again before taking off the heat. Drop in the green chilli, if using and let it infuse for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with basmati rice, or fluffy breads.

Notes : If you wanted to go about this the traditional way, then carefully separate the cream of the coconut milk from the looser liquid underneath. Substitute some of the water used with the thin coconut milk. Add the thick, creamy milk to the pan 10 minutes before the curry is finished cooking.

TPP MOKAlogo plain

Keralan Vegetarian Stew

Inspired by the book by Madhur Jaffrey. “At Home with Madhur Jaffrey

The vegetarian version is more or less the same as the above. I reduced the spices as the absence of meat means that the spicing need not be intense. Use less water and of course, this will take no more than 25-35 minutes to cook in total. I personally feel that green chillies add a wonderful acidic aroma to the vegetarian version. The common large, finger length green chillies offer flavour without too much heat.

60ml neutral tasting oil (I used coconut oil)
Two 1-inch cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
7 whole cloves
7 cardamom pods, lightly cracked
1 large red onion, chopped finely
20 or so fresh curry leaves
2 teaspoons very finely grated peeled fresh ginger
500gm boiling potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut crossways into 1½-inch segments
200gm fine green beans, cut into 3-4cm segments
50gm frozen petit pois
1¾ teaspoon salt
¼–½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
500ml warm water
320ml full-fat coconut milk from a well-shaken can
2 fat green chillies, slit halfway and deseeded (optional)

Heat the oil on medium-high heat in a large, heavy saucepan with a lid. When hot, add the cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and let it sizzle for a few seconds. Add the onions and fry until they are a light golden brown. Add the curry leaves and ginger, and stir fry for a minute before adding the prepared vegetables, except the petit pois. Stir around for 4 minutes, add 500ml  of water (or 500ml of thin coconut milk and water mixed*), along with the cayenne and bring to the boil. Put the lid on, lower the heat right down and let it cook for 20 minutes. Add the peas and the remaining coconut milk and crush a few of the potato pieces against the sides of the pan to thicken the sauce. Stir well, bring back to the boil, lower the heat and cook until the vegetables are tender. Drop in the green chilli, if using and let it infuse for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with basmati rice or fluffy breads.

*Notes : If you wanted to go about this the traditional way, then carefully separate the cream of the coconut milk from the looser liquid underneath. Substitute some of the water used with the thin coconut milk. Add the thick, creamy milk to the pan 10 minutes before the curry is finished cooking.

TPP MOKAlogo plain

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26 thoughts on “Keralan Stew

  1. Sarvani

    oh yum!! keralan stew!! me want some..and with some appams please!!

    even I was really taken in with madhur jaffrey.. whatever I remember of her shows.. she was always so organised and so neat, wasn’t she?!

  2. Simon @ Zest and Herbs

    You’re so right about the importance of curry leaves in dishes like this. It’s a pity the fresh ones can be so tricky to get hold of in the less multi-cultural parts of the UK without a bit of a drive since — I’ve tried cooking with the dried ones and may as well have been throwing shredded paper into my food!

    1. Caroline @ The Patterned Plate

      Hello Simon 🙂 I totally understand what you mean. I lived in Aberdeen and couldn’t get fresh curry leaves for love nor money. I too tried the dried stuff and it was money down the drain. I always feel a little guilty when I post recipes like this because I know it’s not readily available for most people but it is truthful of what’s happening in my kitchen, so that wins the day in the end!

      1. Simon @ Zest and Herbs

        I was visiting a friend for a few days last week and came home with half my bag filled with spoils from the local Chinese supermarket! I don’t think you need to feel guilty though — sometimes the hard-to-find things are more available than first thought (and the occasional omission usually does no harm!). For me recipes should be about inspiration and ideas as much they are instructional.

        1. Caroline @ The Patterned Plate

          I like the way you put that 🙂 I often end up in debates with people who say cookbooks should cater to the ready availability of ingredients in the country it’s published. If that’s the case, you’d never learn of a new ingredient, people wouldn’t enquire for it and we’d never get around to getting curry leaves, lemongrass, kaffir limes or fermented tofu! Oh, I was in Manchester a couple of years ago and went bonkers at the Chinese supermarket there. Most of my suitcase was Chinese ingredients, with the fermented tofu double bagged! Have you read Fuschia Dunlop’s books? Particularly Every Grain of Rice? If you like Chinese food, I’d highly recommend her. Not a week goes by that I don’t cook something out of it; the binding is falling apart!

  3. George Smith

    Your photographs once again are brilliant – the rustic table and the well used rustic cutlery – are adeal for showing the stew – Very well thought out ….. Dad x x x

  4. theloumenu

    Beautiful! Our Madhur Jaffrey book has had so much use it’s getting hard to turn the pages without them falling out – it doesn’t have this recipe though, I’ll be trying it!

    And you are spot on with the light coconut milk. I try to convince people not to buy it (really it’s just lightly coconut flavoured, runny grease fluid) but it normally falls on deaf ears. They’ll learn! 😉

  5. Michelle

    “Whatever you do, please do not use light coconut milk. That stuff is, frankly, vile.” I could not agree more! Why do they even sell that awful stuff? Beautiful pics. Sounds absolutely delicious.

  6. Kirsten

    Delicious! I was intrigued by the appams so I did a little google search. They are quite . . . er . . . involved, aren’t they? Lots of fermenting / proofing and several types of rice required. I don’t suppose you know of an ‘easy’ recipe???

    1. Caroline @ The Patterned Plate

      Kirsten, this is the problem; how to translate it for an international readership. The issue doesn’t just lie with the process, the rice itself is a hard one to nail. I’ve tried using the usual rice powder available in the UK, but it doesn’t come out right at all. I think perhaps Indian rice is more glutinous so it helps hold the ‘breads’ together, whereas ‘western’ rice crumbles. Then as you said, it is involved, it’s basically a yeasted batter. So am in experimentation mode and hopefully something decent will come up soon 🙂 Shall keep you posted!

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