"Meen Vattichathu" - Fish simmered in a spicy gravy
The very first attempts at making this date back to me being a newlywed bride in a Mangalorean household, where spice tolerance was very very low.Even worse, there was no one to judge this dish to be right or wrong and I left it at that.When I moved to Dubai, I purchased my first Meen Chatti ( traditional clay pot for fish preparations) and got back to making it again.
Over the years, I have tried this recipe with various fishes- Red Snapper, Sultan Ibrahim, Kingfish to name a few.I even learned that the very same recipe has umpteen versions not just as you hop from district to district in Kerala, but even in the same house suited to the preferences of each man or woman who prepares this dish.
The original recipe was passed on to me by mummy and it's hard to even get close to what her pot tastes like! Had it not been for my Aunt Rita who introduced me to Mango ginger last year I would have never taken the plunge to experiment with this and many other dishes on a daily basis.She had prepared a Chammanthi( Kerala style chutney) with this ginger blended with coconut and green chilies as a side to the Matta rice.I found myself wiping it down as I stared and breathed in the cut section of this exotic root.It gave out a whiff of green mangoes blended with spicy ginger and ooooh !!! "I have to get my hands on these someday", I thought to myself.
There are a few substitutes for several ingredients in this recipe that I have *marked and mentioned in the notes below.However, the two ingredients that this dish cannot do without is Fenugreek seeds and Cambodge(Malabar Tamarind) So let's get down to business shall we?
King Fish* 900 gms
Oil 1/8th Cup
Mustard seeds 2 Tsp
Fenugreek seeds 1 Tsp + 2 Tsp to roast and grind(discussed in the method)
Shallots* 65 gms - finely chopped
Green chilies 10 nos - finely chopped
Garlic 1 head - peeled and thinly sliced
Mango ginger* 30 gms - finely chopped
Turmeric powder 1 Tsp
Chilli powder 4 Tsp
Cambodge 5 large nos
Water 2 1/4th Cup - boiling hot
Salt to taste
Curry leaves 1 sprig
1. Marinate the fish with a teaspoon each of chili powder, sea salt, and turmeric powder and let it rest for a day in the fridge.
2.Place the tamarind in a bowl and add one cup of boiling water to it and set aside.
3.Roast two teaspoons of the fenugreek seeds until they begin to brown and grind to a fine powder once cooled.
4.Heat the clay pot until hot and add the oil.Once the oil has heated up, add mustard seeds and wait until they splutter.
5.Add one teaspoon of the fenugreek seeds and let them fry about for half a minute.
6.Add the sliced garlic followed by the chopped chilies and ginger and saute until cooked.
7.Add the chopped shallots with a pinch of salt and one teaspoon of turmeric powder and saute on medium heat until they are well fried.
8.Add the powders- chili and ground fenugreek to the pot and mix well on high flame.Now is the time to add the soaked tamarind with the water.Stir well and add another 1 1/4th Cup of the boiling water to the pot.Allow this gravy to come to a rolling boil.
9.Add the marinated fish pieces by hand, one at a time and avoid using a ladle at this point.
10.With the help of two mittens, lift the pot away from the flame and gently swish the gravy around the fish, more like a rocking motion.This helps the fish pieces to settle down and the spices get evenly distributed.After the first five minutes have elapsed add salt as per your preference and give it another swish.
11.Bring down the flame to medium for the next five minutes and thereafter to low for the last five minutes allowing the gravy to simmer down and reduce to a slightly thicker consistency similar to that of buttermilk.
12.By the end of it, you will see a lovely red gravy coming together and a thin film of oil which acts as a preservative.Turn off the flame and garnish with a sprig of curry leaves tempered in a teaspoon of oil.
13.If you can't resist it, then serve right away with some rice and veggies.The way I like it, is to allow it to cool and infuse in the fridge which yields a more flavorful curry for the next day.
A tradition, if you may, at my house is to dump the last few spoons of rice into the leftover gravy and fish in the pot which is mashed gently by hand and polished down shamelessly.The good news is, my husband follows suit. Is the clay pot necessary? I would say yes, as the smoke imparted to the dish from the terracotta is what makes it so distinct from other preparations.
*Red Snapper, Mackerel, Sardine and Sultan Ibrahim are other alternatives
*If you cannot find shallots, substitute with one large pink onion and you will still get a great result
*Mango ginger can be a little hard to find, so you can surely substitute it with Indian ginger which is actually how it is done.Mango ginger has the additional benefit of toning down the spice and imparting an exotic flavor that is unparalleled