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Every other week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
I'm from a town that firmly staked out a place for itself on the culinary map by lending its name to the famed Tellicherry black pepper. A seaside town in the south Indian state of Kerala, Tellicherry lies a few towns away from the beach where the Portuguese arrived to "discover" India. After just a whiff of the local offerings, the Europeans joined in on the spice trade that had been happening in these regions for millennia amongst the Chinese, Arabs, and Phoenicians. For all its romantic history, today Kerala is a modern and cosmopolitan society that's famous for fresh seafood and a skyline dominated by coconut palms for as far as the eye can see. Every now and then, however, you can get a glimpse of the past in the Chinese fishing nets, Arabic words sprinkled in the lexicon, the occasional colonial building in town, and the custards and stews that are now an integral part of the local cuisine.
I mostly grew up in an 18th century home perched on a hill, with its own octagonal ballroom that sat on top of the house like a cherry on top of a cake. Like every old house, it came with its questionable stories, including one of a lady who fell to her death at a party while leaning out a window (who you can supposedly hear screaming on particularly quiet nights). But I really want to tell you about the feasts that were served in this house, and one dish in particular: meen moiley, or fish stew. Although its beginnings remain a mystery -- with some claiming that the name moiley/molee hints at its Portuguese origins, and others arguing that it was a contribution by the Malay -- it is now firmly entrenched in the local culinary repertoire.
My mother tells me that whenever we had guests that were unfamiliar with the local cuisine, meen moiley was always part of the menu: It serves as a gentle introduction to the world of curry leaves, chilies, and coconut without being overwhelming. Bold spices are cooked with pieces of fresh fish, then gently simmered with coconut milk. This tames and mellows the flavors, and gives the dish depth. Although it’s the sort of dish that is so elegant that you’d want to include it in a meal meant to impress, it’s also one of those curries that is delicious and easy enough to make on a quiet night in. Traditionally, this curry calls for bone-in cuts of fresh fish, but fillets work just as well. Although it is customary to eat meen moiley with appams -- pancakes made of fermented rice with lacey, crisp edges -- it tastes equally good with boiled rice. I am, however, partial to cutting up a loaf of warm, soft bread into thick slices, mopping up the stew with it, and then licking my fingers afterward, for good measure.
Serves 3 to 4
For the marinade:
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Pinch of red chilli powder
Salt to taste
For the curry:
250 grams fresh sea bass fillets, cut into 2-inch slices
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, sliced
4 green chilies, cut lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 inch piece of ginger, crushed
2 teaspoons flour
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 small tomato, cut into four wedges
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 cup water
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 sprig curry leaves (about 14)
A squeeze of lime
Salt to taste
Photos by Aysha Tanya