Fishing For Compliments

by Kaveri Ponnapa

At the Coorg table, you can get engrossed in a dark, tangy fish curry, with spice tones reminiscent of the famous pandi curry, but thinner and sharper. No coconut here - just ground onions, garlic and a few grains of raw rice as a thickener, a faint, pleasing bitterness from fenugreek seeds, and dark roasted spices. Sharp, clear flavours emerge from the earthenware cooking pots. For a land locked, hill people, we eat a lot of fish in Coorg. The streams and rivers offered a generous supply of fresh water crabs, and fish like the sweet-fleshed bare meen. Fishing trips had a touch of the theatrical - men balancing along the mud embankments of the lamp –lit fields, or riverbanks, to spear or trap fish. Bamboo traps were laid in cold, swift flowing streams. In season, the flooded paddy fields were full of crab and the prized, tiny koile meen. Fresh catches from the sea were just a day trip away and, centuries of trade with the Malabar coast established a tradition of fresh and dried fish finding their way to Coorg homes, in sawdust-lined tin boxes, carried by Mapilah traders, to be haggled over in backyards. Salted fish was set aside for the monsoon months, or pickled in a thick layer of spices, immersed in baranis (earthenware jars).

To the fish and crustaceans of the sea, and their own highland streams, the Coorgs brought their typical spice mixtures that added beguiling flavours. Whole mackerel, sardines, or slices of sweet –tasting river fish were lightly marinated in red chili powder, turmeric and the indispensible kachampuli, dipped in rice powder, and fried crisp on cast iron tavas. The contrast of the crunch of crisped exteriors, the lingering levels of spice in the firm flesh and a squeeze of lime was always perfect. There were plump morsels of pickled fish, and curries and pickles of prawns. Some days, an estate worker would come by with a catch of slender, flashing fish, a couple of inches long, from the paddy fields. Fiddly to clean of the grit and mud, we spent ages rubbing slippery mounds with ash or salt for that special curry, or my favourite - clusters of koile meen, mixed with spices, bound up into 'cutlets' and fried.

Fresh crab, caught in streams or fields were quick fried, or curried with finely ground coconut into a sour-spicy curry. We served them up with hot akki ottis and melted ghee. As we sat around a small, round dining table, crunching crab claws and sucking out tender meat, my mother-in-law would explain which phases of the moon brought the crabs heavy with meat and, the knack of catching live crabs without receiving a painful pinch. I nodded enthusiastically, but always left that particular task to the experts.

Thank you for visiting this page. If you read something that you enjoy, or see an image that you like, please take a moment to write a response. Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

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