With its long coastline, it is little wonder that fish and seafood are such firm favourites in Keralan cooking. The Keralan coastline runs a distance of 590 km, along which more than 220 fishing villages are situated. Kerala is one of India’s largest fish producers with the industry providing an income to more than one million people.
There isan excess of 300 different species of fish caught along Kerala’s coast. Among those 300, the most common fish that are caught include pearl spot (karimeen), queen fish (neymeen) and prawns (hemmeen). Other popular choices that create the region’s fishy specialities are mackerel (aiyla), salmon (kora) and pomfret (avoli).
Kerala (or ‘God’s own country’ as it is sometimes called) boasts the highest quality of life in India and their love of fish and seafood must play a part in that feel-good factor. Fried, curried or pickled – fish is a hot favourite in the region. Keralan families will head to the fish markets early in the morning to ensure they get the pick of the day’s catch.
Breakfast dishes are usually based on idli or puttu (rice-based dishes) which are often accompanied by a fish curry. Lunch is generally rice and curry (fish again if there was a good choice at the market, or maybe another meat). For dinner there is a range of seafood specialities to choose from, including karimeen and grilled prawns.
In Malayalam, Kerala means ‘land of coconuts’ and coconut features in a number of dishes of the region. The Keralans use all parts of the coconut – its milk, fruit and oil – but it is fish cooked in coconut milk that is a truly popular dish.
One of these dishes – and one that is cooked in most Keralan households –is a simplemeen (fish) curry. This recipe uses fillets of fish which are cooked in coconut milk, tamarind, mustard seeds and other aromatic spices. It is best served with rice mixed with desi ghee.
Another popular dish which is found in most roadside eateries in the northern part of the state is meenpathiri (stuffed fish pancakes). A pathiri (essentially a flatbread) is filled with spicy, shredded fish (most commonly king fish, sardines or pearl spot) which has been cooked with chilli powder, turmeric and other spices. Although the ingredients don’t vary too much, these can look very different in appearance. Some pathiri are filled to bursting and look more like a pie, while others are flattened with a rolling pin once they have been stuffed. Each is equally tasty, of course.
A real delicacy of the region is meenpollichathu. This dish is served in almost every restaurant in Kerala and is fish marinated in a blend of tomatoes, onions, ginger and spices. It is wrapped in a banana leaf and sealed with a clove (and sometimes a kiss!) before cooking.