Blog - Curry Twist

Fish Curry In Thekkady, Kerala

A visit to a working spice plantation was high up on our list when we planned our recent trip to Kerala. A lot of these plantations are centered around Thekkady, a few hours drive from Kochi. We stayed in a luxury plantation house called Aanavilasam, high up in the cardamom hills of Thekkady.

 

This lovely plantation is set amidst groves of cardamom bushes, pepper vines, fruit trees and lovely flowers lining it's paths. Seeing the spices grown so close around us, while nibbling on fresh cardamom and green peppercorn plucked straight from the bushes, was an eye opening, unforgettable experience. The burst of flavour in my mouth was unlike any other.

It was interesting to see that cardamom grows in clusters on stems that trail on the ground, while pepper grows on vines that wind themselves around trees. We also dug up fresh ginger from the ground, crushed a leaf from an allspice plant to inhale it's lovely aroma and peeled off a bit of cinnamon bark to freshen our breath!

 

 

 

 

Once the spices are picked, they are dried over intense heat before being sorted by size, to be packaged and sold. Most plantations outsource this process and sell their spices to wholesale merchants. A lot of spice merchants have their shops in the area.

Thekkady is liberally dotted with vast spice estates where some of the best spices in the world are grown. Nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, star anise, allspice, mace are all grown here, along with coffee, cocoa, papaya and cashews. 

Driving around the steep, narrow mountainous roads, with hillsides covered with trees, vines and wild flowers, we marveled at the gorgeous scenery as we inhaled air perfumed with cardamom!

Indeed almost everything in Thekkady is scented with cardamom. From the local honey that we ate, to the curries, preserves, tea, and even beauty products like oil and soap had the distinct aroma of cardamom to them!

 

 

 

 

Kumily is the main little town in Thekkady, with a lot of spice shops lining it's short main street. Walking into one of these shops was like a doorway to heaven for me and I had to visit each one to make sure I had bought every spice imaginable! The spices are fresh, their flavour strong and intense, better than anything available in most grocery stores. I use mine sparingly so as not to overpower the flavour of the dish and also not to run out of them too quickly!

The food we ate at Aanavilasam plantation house was exquisite, subtly spiced and completely local. They used the spices, vegetables, honey and dairy products from the plantation, with a flavour so pure and fresh that we didn't want to stop eating! Chef Anish's creativity shone in dishes like decadent pumpkin halwa with plantation cardamom, melt in the mouth beet croquettes, fresh paneer korma and banana cardamom preserves slathered over home made breakfast toast.

Chef Anish gave us a cooking lesson in the plantation kitchens, showing us how to make Kerala's famous fish curry. It is one of my all time favourite dishes which I love to serve with coconut rice. Chef Anish uses kokum - a sour dried fruit used widely in Kerala to add tartness to curries. I have substituted tamarind here as it has a similar flavour and is easier to buy. This is his simple, delicious recipe, given step by step, just the way he showed us!

Kerala Fish Curry

Ingredients for fish curry

2 tbsp coconut or olive oil

1/2 tsp each, whole seeds: fennel, black mustard, fenugreek

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 inch piece ginger, finely chopped

2 green chilies, slit or chopped up

30 fresh curry leaves

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp each: paprika, cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander

Small marble sized piece of tamarind, soaked in 1/4 cup hot water and strained OR use 1 tsp tamarind paste

1 cup light coconut milk

1 lb skinless halibut or any other firm fish, cut into bite sized pieces

1/4 cup whipping cream

1 tbsp each, chopped fresh: coriander, curry leaves, green chilies

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Warm oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add fennel, black mustard and fenugreek seeds. Let them sizzle for 30 sec, then add chopped onions.

 Saute for 5 min, then add garlic, ginger, green chilies and curry leaves. Saute for another 2 min.

Add salt and all the spices, saute 1 min. Add tamarind extract or paste and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer 10 min on medium low heat.

Add fish pieces and coconut milk. Mix gently, cook for 10 min or until fish is done. Do not overcook fish. Mix in the whipping cream, chopped herbs and green chilies. Cook 5 min.

Serves four

Chef Anish with his delicious fish curry

Chef Anish with his delicious fish curry

First Class Railway Mutton Curry In Kochi, Kerala

For millennia traders from all over the world have come to the coast of Kerala to buy spices, for this is where the world's best pepper and cardamom have always been grown. Ships from Egypt, Rome, Arabia, China, Portugal and Holland docked in the port city of Kochi, from where they returned home laden with the spices that were avidly sought by food lovers from Lisbon and Paris to Damascus and Xi'an.

Jewish traders from the middle-east were an essential part of the spice trade and there was a thriving Jewish community in Kochi, located a short distance from the King's palace where they lived under royal protection. The oldest synagogue in India, dating from the mid-sixteenth century, still stands in the centre of Kochi's Jew Town, which is even today the heart of the spice trade. The Indian Pepper Exchange, where bulk trading of pepper is carried out, is located a few minutes walk from the synagogue. The surrounding streets are lined with spice shops in which you can buy every type of spice imaginable.

The wealth generated by the spice trade has always attracted people eager to control it. The Portuguese, led by the explorer Vasco da Gama, landed on the coast of Kerala in 1498 and seized control of Kochi. They built the first Catholic church in India, now known as St Francis, and it was here that Vasco da Gama was buried when he died in Kochi in 1524. Fifteen years later his body was moved to Lisbon where it still lies in a cathedral built near the docks from which he sailed.

After a century and half of Portuguese rule Kochi was captured by the Dutch, who were in turn displaced by the British in the early nineteenth century. The old town of Kochi still shows a fascinating mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. The harbourfront is lined with cantilevered fishing nets, a memorial to the Chinese trades who were once frequent visitors, that are today an iconic symbol of Kochi's fascinating history.
Colonial Fort Kochi is the best place to experience the multi layered history of this area. Here you will see old churches, synagogues, palaces and forts including a scenic beachfront area with the Chinese fishing nets.

On our way to Fort Kochi, we got stuck in a massive traffic jam right outside this shop selling freshly fried banana chips, a specialty of Kerala. Banana chips being a weakness of mine and as traffic was at a standstill, we stepped out for a quick look.

It was fascinating to see raw green bananas sliced into thin chips, deep fried and transformed into crisp, warm wafers imbued with salty, banana flavours. I loved them so much I almost made a meal out of them!

When we finally reached Fort Kochi, we found the picturesque beachfront area bustling with tourists as well as vendors selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs to snacks like pakoras, pickles, roasted nuts, coconuts and even freshly caught fish, which they offered to clean for us right on the spot!

The Brunton Boatyard Hotel is an oasis of calm at one end of Fort Kochi and occupies the gorgeously restored historic shipyards. Breathing in the quiet elegance of this place, with colonial era decor, made us feel as though we had stepped back in time!

The cuisine here is authentic, drawing inspiration from Kochi's long trading history with Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British.

At their History Restaurant, each dish speaks a different language and reflects a unique heritage. You will find Anglo Indian beef cutlets on the menu, as well as Syrian fish curry, Portuguese pork vindaloo, and a sublime cinnamon laced, coconut milk creme caramel called Vattalappam that pays homage to it's Dutch roots.

Executive chef Ajeeth Janardhanan met with us to share some of the stories of Brunton Boatyard as well as some of his treasured recipes. He sometimes takes groups of visitors on a tour of the area, stopping by at vegetable and fish markets and other interesting sites to give people an idea of the multi layered history of this place.

Our lunch was at the Armoury cafe of the hotel. Sitting back in this lovely, cool space with a beautiful bar at one end, overlooking the busy harbour and lovely scenery at the other, was a rejuvenating experience. The seafood thali with grilled marinated fish, spicy mussels, masala calamari and the delicate prawn biryani with spicy mango pickles had us hooked! The food was incredible, well prepared with fresh ingredients and local spices and just so flavourful!

One of the most popular dishes on their menu is First Class Railway Mutton Curry. I was drawn to this dish by its intriguing name. The story dates back to the British Raj, when first class compartments of steam trains used to be reserved for the English and their families. Indian curries were deemed too spicy for them and therefore not served there. One day a hungry officer smelled good things cooking, followed his nose to the train kitchens and insisted on a taste of the mutton curry simmering on the stove. He liked it so much that he insisted this curry always be served on the train's first class compartments as well!

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Chef Ajeeth and his team still follow the traditional recipe of preparing this mutton curry, including cooking it in a brass pot for over 4 hours. Here is his wonderful recipe which is great with Coconut rice, appams or naan.

First Class Railway Mutton Curry

11/4 lb boneless, cubed leg of lamb or goat, trimmed of fat

1/4 cup plain Balkan style yogurt

4 cloves garlic, minced or grated

1 inch piece ginger, minced or grated

Salt to taste

2 tbsp oil

4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, cloves, star anise

2 inch stick cinnamon

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 large plum tomatoes (fresh or canned), pureed in food processor

20 raw cashews, powdered OR use 2 tbsp ground almonds

1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, turmeric, paprika

1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala

1/2 cup thick coconut cream, skimmed off the top of a can of premium coconut milk

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander leaves, fresh lemon juice

Combine lamb or goat, yogurt, minced garlic, ginger and salt in large mixing bowl. Toss well to coat, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight.

Warm oil in deep heavy saucepan or skillet set over medium heat.

Add cardamom, cloves, star anise and cinnamon stick. When the spices sizzle, add onions. Saute until lightly browned, about 8-10 min.

Add lamb with all of its marinade, stirring to mix into the sauce and browning for 5 min.

Add tomatoes, powdered cashews or ground almonds and all the spices. Cook until tomatoes blend into the sauce and thicken it slightly, about 8 min.

Add 1/2 cup water, cover pot and reduce heat to very low. Cook until lamb is very tender and sauce thick, about 2 hours or longer, stirring occasionally. If curry starts to burn at the bottom of the pan, add another 1/4 cup of water.

Mix in the coconut cream and cook for another 15 min. Fold in the fresh coriander and lemon juice.

Serves four