Today has been a whole year since Vellima left this world. Truth be told, we didn’t share a close bond. She came to live with us in Dubai 15 years ago right after I turned 15. She had a very strong personality and was a stickler for routines. The word clockwork could have been coined just for her. She always spoke her mind and was not one to sugar coat her words. And today when I think of her, I admire her. And for someone I haven’t seen preparing meals, a few of her recipes have a firm place in my list of favorites. Today I am sharing her recipe for Chemeen Vada.
For her time, she didn’t run a household timidly. My grandfather worked in Malaysia for a greater part of their marriage. If you knew her, you would know of her love for fish. Once she began living with us, one of Umma’s weekly grocery trips was to pick up the freshest fish she fancied. And in our household, fish was prepared for and consumed exclusively by her. Vappa, to date, cannot stand the taste of fish. When Umma would fry fish, she’d make sure the kitchen windows and the patio doors in the living room were left open as he would wince at even the slightest smell of it and his displeasure would be rather apparent and vocal.
Imagine Vellima’s plight. Vappa has told me how she would break it down beyond recognition and roll it into his rice and he would gag and throw up almost every time. Eventually she gave up and had to unhappily come to terms with his fish free diet. Once Ali started eating solids, she would constantly remind me to include fish in his diet. I use the word constantly because she would stress and define the merits of each type of fish, especially on the ones found in smaller lakes or Puzha Meen (her favourite). Vappa was a pure vegetarian for a very long time and fish was almost never found on our table. These prawn cakes crept into our menu once he started eating meat again and they have been a firm favourite for me ever since.
A fish despising Malayalee household is as rare as rare can be. My husbands’ family buy fish that isn’t bought in Mid-Kerala, the star being Tuna. It’s his favourite. I had learnt to 'deal' with it and have even cooked it a couple of times when my mother in law was in Kerala. But that’s the most I would do because it has a stubborn smell which I haven’t learnt to tolerate enough to try. When we visit my in-laws place, let’s just say lunch is a fishy business for me. His grandmother is very considerate and always has some vegetarian curry set on the table for me. Once she made Chammanthy for herself and I asked if I could have a little. That is something I could binge on. Fresh coconut meat is ground with fiery dried chilies and has a slight tang from a squeeze of lemon or a drop of tamarind juice. This is something I can happily eat with Matta or fat rice like how I used to call it. The binding factor for this Vada is Chammanthy too. The only difference is the addition of fennel seeds and bright curry leaves. For this recipe, this chutney is made a little coarser. Once fried, you will bite into a little bit of the seeds and the leaves crispen up and add to the crunch.
You’ve got to be a bit careful about getting the texture of the batter right. That lies in crushing the prawns correctly. It has to be ground ever so slightly. I prefer using a food processor to a grinder because it shouldn’t be pulsed more than three times. The meat should break down just enough to resemble a very thick paste. It will be quite sticky but if it is ground for too long the paste becomes smooth and then it becomes a hot mess to work with. Vellima would have this crushed under the Ammi Kallu, the mortar slab with a heavy pestle resembling a roller. Even so, it wouldn’t require much pressure to break down the prawn meat to the right consistency. The problem with the meat being too pasty is it makes it a difficult task to shape the prawn cakes.
It is then combined with the freshly ground Chammanthy or coconut chutney and a couple of teaspoons of ground rice powder are added right at the end. It helps tone down the stickiness of the batter and yields a crunchy texture. Should you over-pulse the prawn meat, you can add a little more rice powder to salvage the situation. Bear in mind, too much of it will upset the ratio of meat to powder. Once fried, the the prawn cakes will brown too quickly and will toughen.
When you’re frying them, I would strongly suggest using Coconut Oil. It’s one of those recipes that just won’t taste right with vegetable oil. And don’t rush them. When fried perfectly, they will be golden crisp and you will bite into a pillowy center exploding with spice.
This is how I enjoy my Vada. I’m not huge on any kind of rice and my preferred carbs will forever be Bread & Pasta. The day I was making these, I had met with a school friend who had flew in from Singapore and we had inhaled Avocado on Sourdough with roasted tomatoes and Feta with a generous sprinkle of Zaatar for breakfast. I skipped my water and washed it down with a tall glass of chilled Mocha given the weather now. Safe to say once I was home with Ali after school, I didn’t have an appetite. I gave him his lunch and begun prepping and shooting this recipe. It was when I was frying them, the aroma alerted my hunger signals. Having them on its own is dangerous as I can easily inhale them straight out of the pan. And given the dishes all set to be washed, I wanted to whip up something very quick. I had 5 minutes. By the time I had finished frying the last batch, I plated these bed of instant noodles, an egg sunny side up, browned edges and the yolk broken and a few drops of Habenero swirled into it. I sat on the couch and couldn’t help smiling. Vellima wouldn’t approve of my starch choice. I tucked into it happily alongside the Vada I can only associate with her.
Chemmeen Vada | Fried Prawn Cakes
- Fresh Shrimp, shelled and cleaned - 500 g
- Curry leaves - a handful
- Rice Powder - 2 Tsp
- Coconut Oil - To fry
- Dried red chilli - 2
- Green chilli - 2
- Fennel Seeds - 1 tsp
- Grated fresh coconut - 5 Tbsp
- Garlic Cloves - 2
- Ginger - 2" piece
- Shallots, peeled and washed - a handful
- Turmeric - ½ tsp
- Salt - to taste
- Place all the chutney ingredients in a grinder.
- Grind briefly till it resembles a powdery chutney.
- In a food processor or a grinder, pulse the prawn for 3 seconds till it's crushed.
- It should NOT be pasty in texture.
- Place the crushed prawns in a large mixing bowl and add the curry leaves.
- Mix well.
- Add the chutney and combine well.
- Add the rice powder and mix well.
- Heat coconut oil in a shallow sauce pan on a medium-high flame.
- To shape them, dab a little oil on the palm of your hand.
- Take roughly two teaspoons of the mixture and slowly shape it into a sphere.
- Flatten it slightly. It should be bulge in the center and have a thinner circumference, similar to a Parippu Vada or a flat Falafel.
- Deep fry the prawn cakes till golden crisp on both sides.
- This should take close to 5 minutes for each cake.
- Dab a little coconut oil on the palm of your hand. The batter won't stick to to your palm and it makes shaping the cakes easier.
- Temperature of the oil has to be just right. If it is too high, the exterior will brown quickly and the inside might stay raw. Make sure it is on medium-high flame.
Have a good food day.