Coastal curries

Coastal curries

By
Anjum Anand
Contains
11 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849495639
Photographer
Martin Poole

The Indian coastline is about 7,500km (4,660 miles) long, and the food changes as you travel south down the west coast to the very tip of India – a place called Kanyakumari – where the three main bodies of water surrounding India meet: the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. It changes again as you move back up the east coast. While the main ingredients are the same, India’s food scene has seen numerous influences rippling in from the coast over the last millennia, as different colonizers and traders visited and settled on her shores.

My first memory of the Indian coastline is of a broad, beautiful Goan beach on a family holiday, when I was around 12. All I really remember is the beach, playing cards with family friends and the beach-side grilled seafood… which was amazing. I didn’t return until about four years ago, this time with my own children, for a family holiday. My husband isn’t adventurous with food and wasn’t keen on trying the local fare but compromised – after a bit of nagging – and I booked somewhere known for authentic Goan food. As we walked in, I double-checked (as always) that the kitchen could make something without any chillies for the children, but, as with many restaurants catering to locals, the spice bases were already made. My husband and children happily trooped off to eat elsewhere while I stayed and enjoyed my first proper Goan meal in my own company, focusing entirely on the food: best decision of the holiday!

The quality and variety of Indian seafood are truly amazing, and fishermen along the coast have been spicing their wares with dexterity and care for centuries, choosing spices that enhance rather than encroach upon the delicate flavours. The resulting dishes are just delicious, the seafood lending its flavour to the sauce and the spices returning the favour to the fish; working as a beautiful whole. Different regions have their own ways of using spices, with distinct and exciting results.

But Indian coastal food is more than seafood. I have been to sea-facing Ayurvedic spas in Kerala where the food is healthy, light, and completely vegetarian. I’ve eaten in Calicut, where Moplah food uses the same coastal ingredients, but in much meatier ways. The food in Tamil Nadu is known for its crisp rice and lentil pancakes (dosas) and brothy, spicy lentil stews (sambhars), all eaten with fresh coconut chutney. Indian coastal food is defined as much by its seasonings as by its fresh ingredients and, in the case of this chapter, coconuts, curry leaves, mustard seeds, fresh black pepper (on the west coast), red chillies and tamarind are all defining flavour profiles. So this chapter has something for everyone; the only criteria is that every dish could feature on a menu by the Indian sea.

Coconut

Coconuts are such an important ingredient for millions of Indians. They are part of the food culture wherever they grow, but have transcended the table: they are now considered important in industry, as coconut fibres have many useful applications, while the whole nut is used symbolically in many Hindu religious rituals.

In India, coconut flesh is loved and used in many ways. It might be blended into a fine paste, or the milk extracted from the flesh (the blended paste adds more texture; the milk and cream more sweetness). The flesh itself might be chopped, slivered or grated, sautéed into a stir-fry or fashioned into desserts. Coconut water is only ever drunk, never cooked with.

While the West is now researching the benefits of eating coconuts after their recent boom in popularity, Indian Ayurvedic medicine has been loving them for thousands of years… but believe that not all coconuts are created equal. Young green coconuts – which are around 90% water with moist, jelly-like, thin flesh – are considered good for cooling the body and helping to unclog blocked channels to help your body’s own prana or chi (loosely translated as our “energy” and “life force”) move freely. Once the coconut matures into middle age, the flesh is drier and fattier; it is thought to contain more nutrients, fat, carbohydrates and minerals, so this is the best stage at which to eat them. (A fully mature coconut is considered hard to digest and heavy on the system – especially if your digestive system isn’t strong – and best avoided.) On the whole, though, coconuts are considered cooling and heavy, a fantastic nourishing ingredient, but not to be consumed in excess. (Cooking coconut with spices will help you digest it better and also warm up these cool tendencies.) Younger nuts are also considered to be very good for the skin and hair, joints, respiratory illness, strength and immunity.

A quick word on coconut oil. After being vilified for decades, it has emerged as a health hero, with many scientists saying it is the best oil to cook with as it is more heat-stable than many others. It is made up of medium-length fatty acid chains (most other oils have longer ones), which are easier to digest, so is good for weight management. On top of this, it is considered very good for cognitive health and the heart and is anti-microbial, so it’s also good for immunity. The people from Kerala (incidentally, this region is named after the coconut) have always used coconut oil as their primary cooking medium, so cooking one of the Malayali (Keralan) dishes from this book is a great place to start getting healthy!

Thanks to this new appreciation, we now find coconut oil, water, snackable pieces and frozen grated coconut in supermarkets and Asian shops in the West. So, make like the Malayalis and crack open those coconuts!

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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