The state of Kerala is blessed with an extensive coastline that stretches for hundreds of miles along the western coast of India. With 600 miles of sandy beaches and temperate waters, it’s no wonder fish and seafood are such a prominent feature of Keralan cuisine. With more than 200 fishing villages to be found along the water’s edge, Kerala is one of India’s largest fish producers.
There is a huge variety of fish species to be found in Kerala – more than 300 are caught and prepared by local chefs in a myriad of ways. The most common to appear on a menu are: pearl spot (karimeen); queen fish (neymeen); and prawns (hemmeen). Some more famous varieties also include mackerel, salmon and pomfret (known as aiyla, kora and avoli respectively).
Perhapsit is this abundance of fish that has helped Keralans to score the highest when it comes to quality of life in India. Fish and seafood have long been touted as good for our health; whether fried, curried or pickled, fish makes up part of a balanced diet that can help improve wellness and produce that feel-good factor so many of us lack in our diet.
It is common for Keralan families to head to the fish markets first thing in the morning to get the best pick from the catch of the day. They will then bring the fish back home to begin preparing meals for the day ahead.
When it comes to breakfast, Keralans are happy to incorporate fish. An idli or puttu – both rice-based dishes – are often accompanied with a fish curry, and the same is true when it comes to lunch. For dinner, however, Keralans like to mix it up with things like grilled prawns and karimeen.
But there’s one other ingredient also used by thousands of local Keralans every day: coconut. In Malayalam, Kerala literally translates as “land of coconuts” and this fruit is used in a number of dishes. Every bit of the coconut is used – the milk, fruit and oil.
When cooked in the milk, however, fish takes on a truly wondrous flavour. The simple fish (meen) curry that is cooked in numerous households in Kerala is testament to this; fillets of fish are cooked in coconut milk, tamarind, mustard seeds and a variety of other spices then served with rice and ghee for a flavourful local delicacy.
It’s not just in kitchens that delicious fish dishes can be found – at roadside stalls in the north of the state, stuffed fish pancakes (meenpathiri) are highly popular. A flatbread (pathiri) is filled with shredded fish that has been cooked in a special spice mix containing chilli powder, turmeric and other spices. The fish species that work best in these pancakes are king fish, sardines and pearl spot. Some pancakes are filled to the brim and resemble a spicy fish pie, whereas some are flattened out to look more like a traditional western pancake.
But one of the most popular dishes of the region is meenpollichathu. This dish is served in almost every restaurant in Kerala; it consists of fish marinated in tomatoes, ginger, onion and spice before being wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked.