Thursday, May 17, 2012

Keralan Coconut Fish Curry

Hugging the tropical Malabar Coast in the southwest of the Indian peninsula, Kerala has a growing reputation as a destination for holistic vacations that include meditation courses or Ayurvedic treatments. Everyone relaxes under the swaying coconut palms, and the fruits of these ubiquitous trees deliver the creamy flesh and milk that are essential to meen moilee, a delicious fish curry.

Kerala has always relied on fishing, agriculture, and, above all, trade.

There is evidence of the Sumerians and Phoenicians trading cotton, teak, sandalwood, and spices from the Malabar Coast as far back as 3000 BC, when trade ships fueled by the monsoon winds carried goods to Arabia, and overland caravans ferried those most highly prized westward toward the Mediterranean and Europe.
Merchants continued to ply their trade through the 1st century, when St. Thomas arrived in Kerala and introduced Christianity to India, through centuries of Muslim and European domination, reaching new heights of freedom with Indian independence in 1947.
Trade has continued to flourish, but in Kerala it is now augmented by a booming tourist industry.
The laid-back, ethnically Dravidian locals have a paradoxical reputation for maintaining a traditional lifestyle while espousing progressive political values – in 1957 they voted in the first democratically elected communist state government in the world.
They prize education: this scenically alluring land of brilliant green rice paddies, shady palms, golden beaches, serene waterways, and the fertile Western Ghat mountains is home to a population with the highest literacy rate and most equitable division of wealth in the subcontinent. And it runs across religious divides: the bare-chested Brahmin priest you see entering one of the majestic Hindu temples is likely to be a card-carrying member of the same leftist party as a local Muslim fisherman or Christian farmer.
However, it is tradition, not modernity, that holds sway in Kerala’s cuisine, and with fishing communities running the entire length of the coast, fish and seafood naturally play a huge role in local recipes. Combine this with the preponderance of coconuts and spices, and it’s not surprising that a creamy coconut fish curry, meen moilee, is one of the state’s signature dishes.
Any number of fish that inhabit the warm waters of the Arabian Sea can be used as the base, though the most common are kingfish, pomfret, and, best of all, full-flavored sear fish. The fish is added along with the coconut milk to a mixture of fried onions, garlic, chili peppers, ginger, turmeric, and cumin, then simmered until more coconut milk and chopped tomato is added, before a final garnish of tomato and fresh herbs. There is something wonderful about eating this exotic dish at a beachside restaurant looking out over the sea, where countless old wooden sailing ships once carried the spices you’re tasting to other distant lands.

Awaiting a water-taxi in the Kerala backwaters, a series of connected lakes, rivers, and canals that runs half the length of the state

Three Days in Kerala
Even Kerala’s state capital, Trivandrum, is laid-back by Indian standards, but it is the beaches, backwaters, rural retreats, and colonial splendor of Kochi (Cochin) that have far more appeal to most visitors.
DAY ONE : After a filling breakfast of dosas (crispy pancakes) or idlis (steamed rice cakes), leave Trivandrum on an early morning bus or train for Varkala, where you can relax down on the golden sands or at one of the beachside cafés and restaurants.
DAY TWO : Travel to Kollam in time to take a day-long backwater cruise, passing through peaceful lagoons where fishermen ply their trade. In the early evening you’ll arrive in Allapuzha. You can stop en route at the fascinating ashram of the “living saint” Mata Amritanandamayi, or “Amma” (“Mother”), if you extend your tour by a day.
DAY THREE : Take an early bus to Ernakulam and then a ferry across the harbor to atmospheric Kochi, where highlights include the much-photographed sail-like Chinese fishing nets, Matancherry Palace, and the Pardesi Synagogue.

Colorful meen moilee combines a taste of Kerala’s renowned ocean fish with locally grown coconuts, tomatoes, and spices

Getting to Kerela India
Beenapalli (in Trivandrum) and Kochi airports are international. Both towns are also hubs for rail and road connections.
Where to stay in kerela India
Johnson’s The Nest (inexpensive) in Alleppey is very friendly.
Walton’s Homestay (moderate) in Fort Cochin is a beautifully renovated Dutch mansion with a lovely garden.
Villa Jacaranda (expensive) in Varkala is a boutique guesthouse.

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