Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kerala Style Fish. A Fast Dinner In A Strange Kitchen.

   Last week I had an adventure in catering when I packed my knives and my spices and my tools and hit the road to cook a dinner party in a friends kitchen. To put it bluntly this was my fantasy baseball camp; this was my School of Rock. I was chef for a night. Not having ever cooked in this particular kitchen before, I wanted to make sure that since I was going to be cooking with unfamiliar equipment for a bunch of hungry people, I wanted my entree to be something that could be quickly and easily prepared. In other words, I was going to be cooking fish.

   Growing up, if anyone had told me that fish was easy, I'd have said surely you jest. Fish is hard. Fish is tough. Fish could double as roofing tiles any day of the week. I could say this because growing up Catholic, we ate fish every Friday and I was familiar with it's wiles. Fish came in hard frozen square bricks. Maybe it was cod, maybe it was halibut, who the hell knew by the time my mother was done with it. Fish was a cause of great gnashing of teeth, and cursing. Fish needed a chisel to release it from the pan. Fish was torture and one would do well to stay well away from it.That was the lesson I took away from my childhood.

   The truth of the matter was that I secretly loved fish. I'd had wonderful experiences at restaurants in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, and Chinatown. I moved to LA and experienced what Thai cuisine could do with fish, and I experienced the magic of Nobu. I also started cooking Indian food. After 22 years of cooking Indian recipes, I worked my way down to the cuisines of South India which feature wonderful fish dishes.

   These fish dishes are rich with coconut milk and spices. They are in fact amazing sauces in which the fish is poached at the last minute. In some of these dishes, the sauces can be prepared ahead of time and left to mellow, then reheated and the fish added at the last. In short, these fish dishes make a perfect company meal. They're a virtually stress-less entree. So when I went cooking last week I decided that I'd cook some fish and that I'd cook it in kokum. Yes, kokum. Until a couple of months ago kokum was something I'd seen pictures of and seen in recipes but never seen in real life. Then Mr X returned from his regular visit to Kerala and brought me back a package of dried kokum.

Mr. X Being Snarky
   Kokum is a type of sour citrusy fruit, a kissing cousin of the notorious mangosteen of "Chopped " fame that's dried and used in cooking for flavor and balance, almost the way one would use lemon in Western cooking. Kokum also, like many ingredients used in Indian cooking, has Ayurvedic  medical uses  rumored to cover everything from allergies to flatulence. It has a deep, rich, intriguingly smokey fragrance which adds punch to any dish it's added to. If you can't find it at a nearby Indian or Asian market, and you don't have a Kokum Mule like Mr. X, it can be ordered online. Or you can always use tamarind, which is easily found at any Supermarket in the Hispanic foods section. So here's how to get a company entree on the table in about 30 to 45 minutes, even faster if you make the sauce ahead of time.

Fish With Kokum

Here's What You Need:

2 lbs of any thick mild fish (snapper, catfish, basia will do fine) cut into large chunks.

One 2 inch piece of kokum or 2 Tbs of tamarind puree
4 ripe tomatoes or one 16oz can of chopped tomatoes
2 Tbs of coconut or vegetable oil
1 tsp of black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp of fenugreek seeds
A 1 and 1/4 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger chopped very finely
4 green serrano chilies slit in half
1 peeled crushed shallot
2 onions cut in halves and thinly sliced
1 tsp of ground turmeric
1 Tbs of ground coriander
1 cup of coconut milk
1 stalk of curry leaves

Here's What To Do:

Rinse the kokum, take out any pits and soak it in a bowl of cold water for about 10 minutes to soften it.
If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel them and chop them into chunks.Take the kokum out of the water and cut it into small pieces.
Heat the oil in a skillet or kadhai.
When the oil is hot, add in the mustard seeds.

When they start to pop, toss in the fenugreek, chilies, ginger, shallot, and onions.

Cook the onions down until they're soft and translucent.

Add in the turmeric and coriander and give it a whirl or two around the pan.
Add the tomato and coconut milk...

...and the chopped up kokum or tamarind puree.

Bring the whole thing to a boil and then simmer everything for about 5 minutes.

Finally, add the fish to the mixture.

Simmer the fish until it's cooked through, anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes.

Season the fish with salt to taste add in the curry leaves and serve it up.

   There it is, fish on the table in about 30 minutes. Can't beat that. I served this with a simple mustard seed rice, a radish and peanut salad, an eggplant sambal and some mango curd. This is a tasty, simple, inexpensive fish dish good enough to erase any childhood fish eating traumas anyone might have.

   Coming up next, a fast trick with radishes. Follow along on Twitter @kathygori 


  1. Mangosteen, total Chopped favorite. What a beautiful fish dish!!

    1. Belinda@zomppa,
      yes, I've spent so many evenings watching chefs on Chopped get stumped by mangosteen!

  2. Replies
    1. notyet100,
      yes, rice really pulls the dish together as they say!

  3. My mom loves to cook fish with Kokum. It is a wonderful ingredient. I think I got a similar Maharshtran dish. This looks fantastic Kathy and you got some lucky friends!!

    1. Shulie,
      I'm surprised I'd never gotten my hands on kokum before. Who knew it would be so good?!

  4. Replies
    1. Christine's Pantry,
      thanks, the thing about fish for a company dinner is that it cooks so fast! I love that.

  5. I can almost taste your curry! Love the use of kokum here!

  6. @Baker Street,
    yes, I'd never used kokum before I'm now a kokum convert it's got so much smokey deliciousness going for it

  7. Just as you, I grew up having fish on Fridays and although I love fish, I don't make it too often because it is difficult for me to find a good recipe but I like yours and I will definitely try it. Thank you so much for sharing it with us! I also host a weekly food photo challenge called Weekly Photo Stew and I would love you to join if you get a moment.

  8. Another Catholic child with similar memories but my mother never really cooked fish; we ALWAYS had premade fish sticks. I always consider that the conundrum of lots of kids with a demand to eat fish. Bet Gorton's was none too happy when that ritual was no longer necessary!

    This sounds beyond delicious and doable. I'm now on a search for something a bit more complicated although I also saw the recipe for the apples and pistachio cream. YUM!

  9. Sounds really tasty. A must try recipe in my kitchen:)

  10. I am so glad I passed by your site... I was searching for Indian food blogs as I needs all the inspiration. Just doing a food blog... and I must say you have done a good job here :) I am at eatpassionately.blogspot.com; you are most wecome in there. Keep blogging



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