When I stepped onto the shores of Cozumel I was probably as far from India as you can possibly get. But geographical distance does not necessarily imply the absence of any connections, as I discovered when I heard the fascinating legend of "La China Poblana".
The story told across Mexico today is of a young woman in seventeenth century India named Meera who was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates near Cochin in Kerala. She was carried to the Philippines in 1619 where she was bought by a Spanish ship's captain and taken to his house in Puebla, Mexico. There Meera became a Catholic and took the name of Catarina de San Juan. After the death of the captain, Meera supported herself as a seamstress, making colourful blouses and skirts inspired by designs from her native India. She began to see holy visions and was reputed to be able do miracles, becoming famous as La China (which, at that time in Mexico, meant any person from Asia), of Puebla. When she died at the age of 82, she was venerated as a saint and her grave in Puebla became a pilgrimage site. Meera's colourful dresses are now considered Mexico's national dress and still referred to as China Poblana.
Mexico took Meera's sense of style to heart and in return it transformed the food of India by introducing chillies to the cuisine. Puebla is also famous as the place where mole poblano was created, a dish that combines two of Mexico's greatest gifts to the cuisines of the world: chillies and chocolate.
Spices form another great link between East and West. When Columbus set sail he had no idea that he was going to discover a new continent, for he was in search of a route to Asia where he could buy spices, especially the famous pepper of Kerala. Instead he landed in the Caribbean where he discovered a new plant - chilli peppers that were as yet unknown outside the American continent, but which in subsequent years, Spanish and Portuguese traders carried around the world.
Chilli plants arrived in India only a few decades before Meera made her voyage and Indians took to them with gusto. Indian food was never the same once cooks discovered that a pinch of cayenne gave it an unforgettable bite! India gave Mexico La China Poblana and got back a whole new world of flavour in return. I would call it a fair exchange!
Many years of my childhood were spent in Cochin where I grew to love Kerala cuisine, imbued with the flavours of red chilies, black pepper, curry leaves and coconut. Kerala cuisine has many common elements with that of Mexican food such as the use of chillies, ground cumin, fresh coriander and coconut.
I like to think that this typical Kerala fish curry, rich with tomatoes and spices, especially chilies, is something Meera would have enjoyed in Cochin and perhaps created variations of in her new home in Mexico.
Fish curries are generally made in a traditional earthenware pot also known as a Chatti, for the aroma and flavour it imparts to the dish. The fish is never stirred with a spoon. Instead, the chatti is gently shaken from side to side to ensure even cooking and to avoid breaking up the fish as it cooks.
The first marination of the fish in lemon juice helps get rid of some of its strong aroma while the second marination adds to its flavour. Adding coconut milk right in the end helps mellow the heat, while adding creaminess to the sauce. Serve it with Coconut rice for a nice balance of flavours.
Kerala Fish Curry
1 1/4 lb skinless Halibut fillet, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp each: salt, turmeric
A small piece of tamarind, about the size of a large marble
1/2 cup hot water
1 tsp each, divided: ground coriander, ground cumin, dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)
1/2 tsp each, divided: cayenne pepper, mustard powder, ground ginger, garam masala
2 tbsp oil
6 cloves garlic, smashed
20 fresh curry leaves
1/4 tsp black mustard seeds
1 cup (about 6) canned whole plum tomatoes, pureed
1/2 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander, chopped fresh curry leaves
Place fish in large mixing bowl. Add lemon juice, salt and turmeric. Marinate at room temperature for 15 min.
Meanwhile, soak tamarind in hot water for 15 min. Mash it occasionally to soften.
Drain fish, pat dry with paper towels and transfer to clean bowl. Add 1/2 tsp each of ground coriander, ground cumin, dried fenugreek leaves and 1/4 tsp each of cayenne pepper, mustard powder, ground ginger and garam masala. Toss well to coat fish with spices and marinate at room temperature for 15 min.
Strain tamarind through a fine sieve and reserve extract, discarding the fibrous residue left in the sieve.
Warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, curry leaves and mustard seeds. Saute for 1 min until seeds begin to pop and garlic turns lightly golden. Add pureed tomatoes, tamarind extract and remainder of the spices. Stir to mix, cover skillet and cook on low heat for 5-7 min.
Add marinated fish and coat gently with the sauce. Cover skillet again and cook for about 10 min on low heat until fish is cooked through, shaking skillet occasionally for even cooking. Fold in coconut milk and cook uncovered for another 4-5 min until mixture starts bubbling, shaking skillet occasionally. Fold in chopped fresh coriander and curry leaves.