Once upon a time, I had a craving for fish curry. And it was not for any fish curry but for the exceptional and famous Meen Mulakittathu – Spicy Fish curry, Kerala style. Meen Mulakittathu is a type of preparation of fish in Kerala that results in a tangy, spicy, runny curry that is often paired with Kappa (Tapioca), Red rice, Dosa, and what not!
Though I have happily relished it multiples times with above mentioned dishes, not once have I cooked it on my own. So in this city where I moved in a few months ago, I was equipping myself with a mission to not only cook, consume and satiate my taste buds but also to fulfil that occasional pang of nostalgia that one feels when away from home.
So, on a fine Sunday, I decided to cook it for lunch. After perusing many recipes in the internet I finally settled on one. Perfectly cut steaks of Seer fish, spices, curry leaves and all the items kept ready, I started the process of experimenting in my kitchen.
An hour of unabated anticipation and careful preparation later, the curry was finally done! I plated it just like I have seen it many times before- red rice and the runny spicy fish curry on the side!
But to my dismay, the curry was not runny enough. Also, when I tried tasting it, though it did taste good, something was amiss. It was a good fish curry, the recipe was deemed a success by the blog’s followers, but not the extraordinary curry that I had prepared my appetite for. The texture had not turned out right and it definitely missed that dash of nostalgia!
I was immensely disappointed and attributed the normalcy of the curry to the absence of Kudampuli (Malabar Tamarind) which is not usually available in the city where I live (..neither do I get good Kappa/Tapioca! Sigh). I had substituted Malabar tamarind with ordinary tamarind hoping that I can ensure a similar tanginess.
The more I thought about it the more it bothered me. How could one ingredient make so much of a difference?
A couple of weeks later I travelled to my hometown in Kerala for a short stay. I was on a vacation, that I enjoy all the perks of a holiday. Hence it was after a deep afternoon slumber that I woke up to a tantalising aroma of ghee and jaggery. It filled my room which is on the first floor of the house and I immediately rushed down to the kitchen, eager to find what was cooking.
My mother and her help were making an evening snack made of beaten rice.
Called Aval Varattiyathu – It is a simple dish made out of beaten rice, ghee, jaggery, nuts, cardamon and grated coconut.
I joined them in the kitchen and was observing the preparation. The aroma was strong but not overpowering. I could see the beaten rice slowly turning into brown as hot ghee and melted jaggery were repeatedly folded in. It looked like magic was on work.
But there were a couple of things that I noticed. It was being prepared in the traditional Uruli, a cooking utensil used in Kerala. Coconut was grated just a couple of minutes before preparation and it looked and smelled fresh. Cardamom was freshly pounded and was added in as needed. The uruli made the folding of jaggery very easy and it ensured that the heat was spread evenly. The method of preparing even this simple evening snack was so meticulous! I sat there and captured the entire process which looked quite artful.
The evening was divine! The dish tasted spectacular and though I kept consuming in heaps it didn’t give me any trouble.
The taste of Aval Varattiyathu made me think a little more about the methods of preparation, the freshness of produce and more that goes into cooking!
I spoke to the experts in my kitchen about the failed attempt of fish curry and the questions that were put to me included whether I used Kudampuli, whether an earthen pot was used, whether the fish was a fresh catch and so on.
I chose to spend the rest of the days in my vacation to learn how to prepare a few traditional dishes. I knew that I cannot recreate them entirely back in the city where I live but shopping and carrying a few clay utensils back proved exceptionally useful in adding that dash of nostalgia!