This post owes its origin partly to Chowder Singh, a food blog that knows what it is talking about and partly to the fact that I am a die-hard fish-eating Malayali. I also live on the universal truth that there is no better accompaniment than kappa aka tapioca for a classical Keralan fish curry.
Ask any Malayali, anywhere in the world, about food back home, and they will consistently come up first with kappa-meen curry on their list of favorites. This yellow mash of boiled starchy tuber, with its understated flavor accompanied by spicy, red, gambooge-flavored fish curry scores high on the nostalgia list for any marunadan Malayali. What about the Malayali who has stayed back, not conforming to his/her congenital nature to wander the world? Well, we are happy to do the kappa-meen curry routine habitually, if not on a daily basis as some of us do.
In the Central Travancore region, where I grew up, kappa goes by another name cheeni, a shortened form of maracheeni. But whatever name you call it, it remains one of the prominent stars of contemporary Malayali cuisine – a dish with very humble origins that found its way to the five star high-tables.
The genesis of kappa (I will stick with this name since that’s how it’s mostly known) is purely agrarian – the toiling men required a diet that was high on starch, and the carbohydrates in kappa gave you that instantaneous, explosive fix of energy to last a long day under the sun.
A typical work lunch of yore might have been kanji – rice gruel – with boiled chunks of kappa and some mulagu chamanthy(raw green chillies/dried red chillies ground to a fiery paste with onions, a dash of tamarind and a pinch of salt) to pep up the meal.
Of course, as they say, you got to burn that excess energy off or else. All good things, all things tasty are also incidentally the most dangerous in terms of health – says jungle wisdom. We know it’s a conversation that leads to a culinary nowhere.
Coming back to kappa, we can cook it in the three ways that’s predominantly seen around
– the plain boiled variety that you have with the aforementioned chutney(great with kanji laced with coconut milk),
– then the boiled version garnished with shredded coconut and given a tempering of mustard, dry red chilies, curry leaves and a dash of asafoetida (goes well with the chutney again),
– and then, my favourite version, where tapioca is made into a yellow, boiled mash interspersed with spices(the turmeric lends the colour) and a fascinating combination with fish curry.
People have been known to have kappa with beef curry, beef fry, fish fry, chicken curry, sambar, and this being Kerala, further innovations though unknown to me, are very much possible. I hope someone writes in to tell us something outrageously original or funny.
Coming to the fish curry, the fish preferable is ayala (mackerel ideally cut into three sections – the head, tail and the mid-section). People have their own preferences about the portion they want to go with – mine is the tail portion with its well-defined contours and uncomplicated structure when compared to the mid-section where you find more thorns around the rib-cage and the head portion which qualifies as a gourmet experience.
These days, you can walk into restaurants in Thiruvananthapuram and order thala curry – the large head of seer fish cooked in the same style as the Keralan fish curry – though I am yet to have that quaint experience as described by many. Sagara Restaurant in Vazhuthacaud Jn waxes about the “taste of the sea” in their dishes (that’s a weird by-line and I imagine myself exiting the restaurant with a sheaf of sea-weed leaking out of my mouth to a BGM of seagulls going insanely guttural) – however, I do find their fish-roe foogath aka meen-mutta thoran fabulous. The prices are equally fabulous considering the disappointing ambience of the restaurant. So not exactly the place to have a “taste of the sea” every day.
The ideal mackerel curry to go with kappa should at least be a day old, the aroma of gambooge (Like asafoetida, gambooge is an anti-flatulent as well as a laxative) being the dead giveaway for a seasoned foodie. This is debatable considering what could possibly rival one biting into the freshness of a juicy chunk of mackerel, just-off-the-stove and piping hot, and carrying the memories of the sea.
And, factually, the best fish curries of Kerala belong to Central Travancore. They are the fieriest too. Compare that to its limp cousin from Thiruvananthapuram, toned down with coconut milk, that too with drumsticks in it (we Malayalis do love our percussion tradition but then, this is a drumstick of the vegetable kind). I am a purist (with a history of screwing up dishes under the pretext of creativity while at hotel school a decade and half ago) when it comes to the conventional fish curry and can’t stand attempts to play with this recipe that has stood the test of time.
Culinary boundaries have mostly blurred and you increasingly find fish curries in Thiruvananthapuram and elsewhere in the world made in the true mid-Travancore style.
If at all there is a pretender to the throne that mackerel so easily takes, it would be the mathi (sardine). I have felt that mathi curry (nei mathi is ideal with its buttery taste and comparatively larger size, and is priced dirt cheap in the months of June/July when it is sold by the basket or cane kotta) comes a close second to ayala curry as an accompaniment to kappa. Considering the size of the mathi, you need at least four of them to arrive at an acceptable potion size for an adult. Well, that is, if you can stop at that.
We can go on and on about the fish curry; there are as many angles to it as there are fish in the sea. We are crazy about our fish curries – a fact that we are aware of sub-consciously, but something that we never speak of, or rather wear on our sleeve. You will never hear a Malayali say he is crazy about fish, nor will you hear anyone else say it about Malayalis either. We just never felt the need to.
After all, by default, all things heavenly belong to God’s own Country. Just a theory.