As a child I was an early riser. When we used to go home to Kerala during the summer break, every morning I would sit outside on the marble slab in the veranda, still in my pajamas. I would watch the fishermen riding down our street on their bicycles, a cane basket hoisted on the rear end, calling out the names of the days’ fresh catch. The kitchen was at the very end of the house and I would run through the hallway and tell my grandmother what fish the fisherman had brought. She would be seated on her dark wooden stool watching over the help as they made the meals for the day. If she wished to buy the fish, she would give me the white melamine plate adorned with blue and red flowers set aside solely for this purpose. I would run back to the fisherman and inform him in my grown up voice the weight she had specified. Taking out a rusty scale, he would run his fish-scale smeared hands through an assortment of weights. By the time he would have given me the fish, my grandmother would have arrived with a few notes in her hand, ready to haggle over the prices. This was how my mornings started in Kerala.
If you are a non-vegetarian, rice and fish curry is considered a staple meal in Kerala. The type of fish favoured and its preparation would vary according to which part of the state you hailed from. The family recipe for fish curry uses freshly squeezed coconut milk, ‘Kodampulli’ or kokum and a heap of shallots that will tire your hands from peeling. The spice level is on the milder side compared to the curry cooked in the Northern part of Kerala. My father is one of the rare breed of Malayalis who doesn't eat fish. He has excluded it from his diet at a very young age and is revolted by the stench of it being cooked or fried. I remember when Umma would cook fish curry for a dinner party, she would leave the windows and patio doors open throughout the day.
The only exception is shellfish. Vappa loves prawn that has been marinated in the traditional spices and deep-fried to crisp brown. Then there is ‘Chemmeen Vada’ where de-shelled, de-veined prawn meat is lightly pounded with whole spices and grated coconut and fried in coconut oil. The coconut imparts a croquette-like crunch and is insanely addictive.
Today I’m sharing another favourite recipe from Umma’s kitchen. Prawn Roast is a popular Keralite recipe and no restaurant menu serving fish would be complete without this. Umma’s version is on the spicier side and it has a wonderful tang from lemon juice and ripe tomatoes. I would like to think the roast part of the name is from the process of slowly caramelising thinly slivered onions on a gentle flame. It is the perfect accompaniment to flaky Malabar ‘Porottas’ or piping hot yeast-fermented ‘Appams.’
This recipe can be categorised under a traditional Keralite recipe because of the addition of two ingredients, whole curry leaves and fennel seeds. Umma's curry leaf tree is slightly taller than me now. Unlike the produce that is packaged in plastic in supermarkets, these leaves stay bright and green for weeks without darkening and drying out. Fennel seeds are used popularly in Keralite cuisine either as whole or powder form. The seeds are roasted in a dry pan on gentle flame till they perfume from the oils released when heated. They are then ground to a fine powder and should last you at least a year if stored properly. A light hand should be used when adding them to any recipe because it can easily overpower and mask the flavours of fellow spices in the recipe.
This recipe is not for those with faint taste-buds as there are two sources of heat. The omnipresent red chilli powder and whole green chillies. The chilli powder imparts the fiery colour that could have you either salivating or caution you about the impending spice profile.
The green chills are ground to a fine paste along with whole garlic cloves and fresh ginger stems. I find using this paste while cooking Indian recipes easier than chopping it and adding the same to as it blends easily into the curry or roast and you won't have to worry about biting into that one oddly chopped chilli slice. There are quite a few ready-to-use ginger-garlic pastes that you find on the supermarket shelves. It is convenience bottled in a jar but it cannot be compared to the aroma and taste of using freshly ground paste. if you cook using these ingredients daily, you can save some time by making just enough paste to see you through your cooking for the week .In this recipe, the ginger becomes a tenderising agent in the marinade.
If you're craving succulent, fiery chilli prawns, a la BuQtair style, you could skip the roast process and deep fry the marinated prawns in hot coconut oil. Prawns cooked the Keralite way will most definitely be branded as over cooked by a seasoned chef. It is cooked till the prawns shrivel up to half their size and might have a chewy texture. The afternoon I made this, I also made three super thin, super crackly pure Ghee laden 'Dosas' to mop up my Prawn roast. Do tell me how you intend to have yours.
Malabar Prawn Roast - Naadan Chemeen Roast
- 250 g fresh prawns, de-veined and cleaned
- 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ½ tsp fennel powder OR 1 tsp fennel seeds
- ½ tsp chilli powder
- A pinch of turmeric powder
- 6 curry leaves, washed thoroughly
- Ginger, garlic, chilli paste made from ½ inch ginger stem, 3 large garlic cloves and 3 green chillis
- Salt to taste
- 1 large onion - thinly sliced
- 1 medium-sized tomato - chopped
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- ½ tsp chilli powder
- ½ tsp coriander powder
- 1 Tbsp tomato ketchup OR tomato paste
- Salt to taste
- A pinch of sugar
- Coconut oil - 3 Tbsp
- Marinate the prawns in the ingredients specified for at least half an hour.
- Heat coconut oil and fry the curry leaves and prawns till they're just cooked within.
- Remove from oil and set aside.
- In the same oil, fry the onion till it starts turning brown.
- Add ginger, garlic and chilli paste and sauté for a few minutes.
- Add tomatoes and continue sautéing till tomatoes break down and the mixture starts looking mushy.
- Lower the heat and add the spice powders and salt.
- Gently mix the roast together. It will start pulling away from the sides of the pan.
- Add the fried prawns and curry leaves and mix gently.
- Add tomato ketchup and mix gently.
- Finish off with a pinch of sugar.
Have a good food day.