Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kerala-Style Fried Fish

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

The first day I was in
Kottayam, Iyshakochamma and I went in search of a meen chutty – an earthenware pot dedicated to cooking fish. We walked to the main thoroughfare to flag down an auto rickshaw. Tatas, Suzukis, and the pod-shaped three wheelers zipped by us, like twigs travelling downstream. After several minutes of futile waving, a rickshaw swung off the road and abruptly stopped in front of us. We slid in back. Iyshakochamma asked the driver to take us to the main business district and he strong-armed the steering wheel back towards the charging traffic.

As the driver dodged harried taxis, barreling buses, and whole families on scooters, we jerked left and right, up and down. Flocks of school children, street side temples, and white washed churches where Syrian Christians worship shot by on either side. Our hair tossed and flipped in the gritty, open air and our noses perked as the smell of fried fish, exhaust, and jasmine ebbed and flowed. After several minutes, we pulled behind a truck transporting a towering heap of green bananas and we followed it to a large open market.

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

We slipped out of the rickshaw and into a zig-zag of commerce being carried out of storefronts, off carts and curbsides. A lemon vendor gave way to a man selling fresh fish. A purveyor of coconuts segued into a woman peddling bananas. We passed concord grapes with skin that rivaled fine velvet and sunset yellow papayas. Hawkers beckoned us to try their lanky beans, which sat within eyesight of ruddy tomatoes and pineapples topped with fountains of green.

The Portuguese who were the first to find a sea route to India brought much of this bounty. Their most pivotal contribution to India, and other parts of Asia, was the introduction of the chili. The spice is so integral to everyday Kerala cooking that nearly every family has a hot pepper plant (and when I was charting out my plot in the community garden, miles away, my mom insisted that I plant hot peppers, which I did.) At the market, we saw an array of chili – red, green, fat, lean.

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

As we navigated the bustling market, Iyshakochamma continued sleuthing for the meen chutty. Each vendor directed us to walk a bit further. About an hour into our search, we came to a narrow alleyway. An elderly woman in a faded cotton sari stood in a doorway. Around her feet, sat an army of clay red and charcoal black meen chutties, their straight sides giving way to a slightly rounded bottom. These pots conduct heat more evenly than their aluminum counterparts and are ideal for gently cooking fish. The woman turned over my selection, and tapped the bottom, testing its craftsmanship in front of us. She handed me the pot shrouded in newspaper and we headed home.


This recipe demonstrates how gorgeous cayenne pepper tastes when it is part of a simple, well-balanced spice mixture. Here it adds dynamic flavor rather than overpowering heat. (When a dish is really hot, it can be because the spices are poorly portioned. Items that are meant to be hot-hot, such as pickles and chutneys, tend to be eaten in small portions.)

I love making this recipe with salmon, but you can substitute just about any other fish from catfish to pampano. It's glorious with sardines, but they'll leave a fishy odor in your kitchen for days. Also, this recipe is very delicious broiled or grilled if you prefer a more heart heathy dish.

Serves 4 to 6


1 pound salmon fillets
2 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash of turmeric
2 tablespoons shallots, finely minced (optional)
2 teaspoons water
Canola oil for deep frying

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)


Wash salmon and slice into roughly 2 inch x 3 inch pieces. Cut 1/2 inch diagonal slits into flesh.

Mash shallots in a mortar and pestle.

In a small bowl, mix cayenne, garlic powder, salt, turmeric, and shallots. Add water and mix until it forms a paste.

Rub fish with paste. Marinate in the refrigerate for at least two hours.

Heat oil in a pot over medium high heat. Add onion slices. Add a few pieces of fish, skin side down to oil. Lower heat to medium and cook until fish browns, about 5 minutes. Turn fish and cook other side.

Remove fish from oil and place on paper towel.

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)