A Great Little Fish Fry

I was going to call this post “She’s a Meen Varathathu”, but then I relented. We had some gin & tonics with friend yesterday, online, of course, and they were complaining that I don’t post enough. I was going to keep it to one post every 2-3 days, just so I don’t inundate everyone, but here’s one just for you. You know who you are!

She’s a Meen Varathathu

This time, I’ll do the recipe before I start rambling on about all sorts of stuff:

  • 300g-500g little fishes, or any other fish you can deep fry
  • juice of 1 juicy or 3 dry limes
  • juice of 2 kalamansi (remove those pips!)
  • 2 pinch salt
  • 1 thumb sized piece old ginger, 20g-25g
  • 4 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp good quality turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tsp water

Get your fish man to scale and clean the little blighters, but leave the bones in. Wash and dry the fish on kitchen towel, if necessary and it probably will be necessary. I used fish Eddie’s mum bought for us months ago and that had travelled from Ipoh to KL and then entered a long hibernation in permafrost, i.e., our freezer. I defrosted them in the chiller over 2 days and they came out beautifully clean, fresh sea smelling. Now that we have time, I suggest you never defrost anything by leaving it out in the KL heat. Do it slowly and you shall be rewarded by a much better quality.

Next, put you fish in a bowl,squeeze the limes and kalamansi on it, sprinkle the salt on and toss it about. Leave it for 20 minutes, while you make the paste. You don’t need to put it in the chiller, it will be fine on the kitchen counter.

Peel the ginger, chop it into smallish pieces and put it into a mortar. I tried to use the blender, but the quantity was too small. And anyway, it’s pretty easy to pound. Add the chilli, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, salt, vinegar and water and pound to a fine paste.
Pour the excess lime juice out of the bowl. You don’t need to be anal about this and dry the fish again, just pour what comes out easily. Put the paste into the bowl and coat the fish as evenly as they will coat.

Leave the little fishes alone for another 20 minutes while you have that first glass of cold white wine. Then comes the fun, scary part. Frying those fish in a lake of oil. Like a good housewife, I keep oil for frying in a recycling jar, so I don’t waste so much every time. Here is think I used about 2 cups (that’s Chinese rice bowls, not American measuring ones) and I fried 3 fish at a time. Make sure your oil is smoking hot and beware of the splatter. I really think a wok is much better for this than a deep fryer, but that could be having lived in Asia for 30 years. When’s your fish ready? First the bubbling will subside and then the fish will start to look golden. Tip: The fish always looks lighter in the oil than out of it. It’s perfectly fine to fish out one and see how it looks.

about halfway through frying
checking the colour

We ate this with Eddie’s fantastic Thai green mango salad and as we were out of long beans we used blanched Thai bitter gourd. Blanched, because raw it is VERY bitter, even for aficionados of bitter stuff. What, you ask is a Thai bitter gourd? I’m thinking of creating an ingredient glossary page with loads of pictures, so just wait for that one.
I’m going to try and get Eddie to share his recipe today. He’s such a perfectionist, he only wants to share perfected recipes that he approves of completely. If I did that, I’d never post anything. As it reached final approval level yesterday, I just might be able to get him to share it today!

What’s Meen Varathathu?

I have to admit that I didn’t come up with this recipe myself. I got it from this book, but I fiddled with it a bit and made some changes which seem to have worked out just fine. Eddie and I joined two friends for a trip to Kerala in January, whcih was quite fantastic (post will come) and instead of buying souvenirs, we brought back a lot of spices and foodstuff and of course cookbooks to help us recreate the food we enjoyed there. The Essential Kerala Cookbook is a rather academic tome, no pictures, no anecdotes, but a great reference book. So once you buy the glossy picture laden food porn, get this one to help you make the stuff correctly. So if you want to make a mean meen varathuthu, this is where you look it up. I think I’ve just about milked that joke dry now, so on to more important things:

Chilli, Chili & Chile

They are of course all the same, but not all chillies are the same. I found that the chilli powder they use in Kerala is very much different from the one we use here in Malaysia. For one, it is much less spicy, so adding it by the tablespoonful will not kill you. It’s also a lot more fragrant. I’m not sure how to explain it, but if you wanted to recreate Kerala chilli powder, I think a mix of local chilli powder, mild chilli powder and a tiny pinch of smoked paprika will do it.

Talking about paprika, we went for a few few cooking classes and the were obviously all geared to the mat salleh market (white people, for those who don’t know), so everyone was replacing chilli powder with paprika, which is a really dreadful idea! The beautiful fragrance is lost and it’s like making Hungarian curry.

The difference is actually clearly visible. On the left Shaury chilli powder, on the right Spice Market Fort Kochi chilli. Shaury is a great brand, they pack the best juniper berries and dry herbs I have been able to find here, so this is not to say their chilli isn’t good. It’s just very different! One last word about the shop, Spice Market, it’s a women’s co-operative, so it supports women farmers, etc., all the way to the women retailers, who run the shop. Scary aunties, really describes them better. They passive aggressively coax you to buy spices by the kilo, so you’re likely to walk in “just to have a look” and walk out laden like a donkey.

Look out for one of the next Blogs: “It’s all Fenugreek to me!” about the weird and wonderful properties of fenugreek seeds.

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