Some evenings, everything comes tumbling together in a way that is so perfect you couldn’t replicate it if you planned for months. Cool, crisp weather, mild enough to sit outdoors if you wished. A few friends who just dropped by and stayed on, extending the day. A couple of exciting bottles of wine you picked up on holiday that you’ve been waiting to try; and a bunch of fresh vegetables in the fridge. You want great food on the table without too much time in the kitchen, time you’d rather spend at the table in good company, with that glass of wine in your hand. When this happens, it just has to be a fish fry night.
In my everyday cooking, I am often pleasantly surprised at how a very old, rustic recipe that we have all loved and taken for granted can translate into something quite modern –like a traditional Coorg fish fry, for instance. There are just a few ingredients to play with: fish, salt, turmeric, chilli powder, a little rice flour and of course, a spoonful of that dark, silky kachampuli, without which much of our cooking would not be the same. If you want a little more complexity to the flavours, you could add a spoonful of ground garlic and ginger. But the basic ingredients never change, and the results are always the same if you happen to be frying whole mackerel or sardines –hot crisp fried fish, moist and flaky on the inside, enclosed by charred, slightly smoky skin.
I love both these oily fish, mackerel in particular, with its rich flavour and meaty texture that absorb spices so well. The only disadvantage is all those fiddly bones you have to work your way around. Of late I’ve grown quite lazy, getting my fishmonger to filet them, ready to fry, which takes away the effort of picking your way through lines of sharp fish bones. There’s always a stash of these filets standing by. So if it’s to be a fish fry night, all it takes is a quick marinade of spices, a couple of dips into a pile of rice flour which crisps the skin beautifully when fried and a squeeze of fresh lime juice to finish. I serve these with a couple of fat, ripe tomatoes, a generous helping of chopped spring onions and a glass of chilled white wine.
There’s hardly anything more simple or perfect. Mackerel is such an intense fish it does all the work for you, with just a salad for company. You can serve a glass of champagne as an aperitif if you feel like it, and then this version of an old Coorg favourite.
That’s how we find ourselves around a dining table every now and then, sipping glasses of chilled Sauvignon Blanc, talking into the night and eating this crisp fried fish. It fills my mind with images from another world: of smoke-blackened walls in a wood-fired kitchen; a wide black cast iron griddle on which the fish was shallow fried, sizzling slowly to perfect doneness, absorbing some smoky flavours along the way, before bring carried to the table in batches. Lime juice that trickled down fingers as we squeezed some onto the fish mingled with the spices and was quickly licked up. Everyone pinched morsels of fresh fish wrapped up in crispy skin and finished every scrap on their plates. Some things never seem to change.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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