Alaskan salmon, Keralan spice

Wed 09 Jul 2014 @ 14:57
Author Paul Dring

Before we were married, my wife and I spent a month travelling around Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India. We loved the country and there were many food highlights, from a simple breakfast of idlis and sambar looking out over serried ranks of tea bushes in Munnar, high in Kerala’s hill country, to a deliciously spiced Syrian-Christian shrimp pickle, chemmeen achar, enjoyed with ‘special tea’ by the surf-slapped beach on Cochin’s Vypeen Island. This bizarre sounding potation is actually just cold beer, in this case the ubiquitous Kingfisher, furtively served in a teapot in an attempt to bypass local licensing laws.

It was during this memorable meal that I had my first taste of meen molee, the simple fish curry enriched with coconut milk and fragrant with curry leaf that is such a fixture on Keralan menus. It’s usually made with local fish such as tilapia or pomfret but in UK domestic kitchens a bit of wild Alaska salmon fits the bill admirably. So one afternoon, with the help of my young kitchen brigade, seven-year-old Boris and Tallulah, five, and armed with four fillets of fine-quality Alaska sockeye salmon, I set about recreating this holiday favourite at home.

First off, we gently fried half a tablespoon of black mustard seeds in a good lug of vegetable oil till they had finished popping (the children gleefully relished seeing the exploding seeds pinging up into the underside of the saucepan’s glass lid). Next we threw in a handful of 10 or so curry leaves (fresh are best, dried are fine) and cooked them till fragrant but not burning, whereupon Boris added three sliced onions and a teaspoonful of fenugreek seeds (not usually used here, but they work fine for me).

The onions were fried slowly for about 10 or 15 minutes, till they were meltingly soft but not coloured, whereupon Tallulah added a teaspoon of turmeric and a couple of sliced, deseeded green chillies, with which she neither managed to stain her fingertips nor get into her eyes, so that was pleasing. After a minute’s stirring, we added a tin of coconut milk, half as much again of water, and slipped in the four salmon fillets. You can chop the fish into chunks – it is usually prepared this way, with the pieces briefly marinated in lemon juice, salt and turmeric – though here I preferred to leave the fillets whole, anticipating the pleasing contrast between the turmeric-tinged orange of the cooked fish’s exterior and the deep red of the sockeye’s interior that would be revealed by the push of the fork. This rich hue is a result of all the crustaceans and zooplankton that constitute the salmon's diet in the wild, so is 100% natural.

This simmered away for about 20 minutes, allowing me to wash and cook some basmati rice and Tallulah to pick a couple of handfuls of coriander leaves. With five minutes remaining, Boris scattered over a handful of halved cherry tomatoes and, when they had softened though were still retaining their shape, the pan was taken off the heat. Now it was time to check the seasoning, add couple of teaspoons of tamarind paste and stir through along with the coriander.

As you can see from the children’s beaming faces, above, the result was a genuine crowd-pleaser. And though we couldn’t hear any waves crashing onto the beach and we had decided against serving any beer in a teapot, the gently warming spices and deeply savoury flavours certainly took me back to Kerala, albeit via Alaska.

For more information about Alaska salmon, please visit the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute website.

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