Our visits to Kerala inevitably coincided with family festivities. At the end of the hectic day in our ancestral home, I always knew what my grandmom would ask to eat. Eschewing all leftover bounties from the feast—roast duck, curried rabbit, fish molee, kalappam, stir fried pork, chicken in a roasted coconut gravy—she would inevitably ask for her favourite that is rice porridge or kanji (or congee as it is known by the rest of the world) and some dry fish chutney.
Her sons and daughter-in-laws would inevitable try to coax her into eating something more befitting her status as the presiding matriarch of a large prosperous household - some home-style fish curry or at least some payar thoran (dried beans cooked with coconut and curry leaves). But, she would protest and say that nothing would satisfy her soul, but kanji and dry fish. Inevitably one or two of her 11 living children, would join the pro-kanji-unnaka meen chorus, and the conversation would veer towards days when all they had on the table was dry fish and kanji. We maybe spoilt for choice now, they would joke, but nothing can quite hit the same spot that kanji and dry fish does. “Attaye pidichu methayl kidathiyal kedakumo?” (Will a leech find comfort in a feather mattress even if you lay her there?)
Back in Delhi, dry fish was precious commodity for different reasons. Since it was dehydrated and salted, the fish travelled well, lasted long and was used up in small amounts to bring back some of that briny, earthy fragrance of home to the land-locked neighbourhoods of northern India. Several wrinkled noses the next day would remind us to spare our neighbours the trauma that the seaside ‘fragrance’ of the dry fish inflicted on them. I learned early that both the aroma and strong flavour of dry fish are very much an acquired taste. One that distinguished us from our north Indian neighbours and friends.
Despite painful, sometimes cringe-worthy embarrassment, there was no taking away the chutney from my plate. Salty from the fish, full of umami, fragrant with the unique Keralite combination of crushed shallots, curry leaves, chillies in raw coconut oil, this unassuming condiment lends complexity and depth of flavour to many bland meals, lifting them to a feast.
Wanting to learn more about why this dish brought back sad smiles to so many of their faces, I turned to my favourite uncle James or Jameschayan as we call him. Kappa (tapioca) or kanji with dry fish was what we ate from early childhood when oil, coffee, tea and sugar were unaffordable luxuries and the family livelihood depended on what the farm produced, he said. Each week, one of the brothers would have to bell the cat and accompany their strict no-nonsense father (my grandfather) on his long walk to the Saturday market to sell the week’s bounty from the farm. The adjacent market was dedicated to dry fish of all varieties. The most common were shark, surgeon, anchovies and shrimp, the most sought-after ingredients for the common man's kitchen because they were cheaper, easy to store despite the heat and humidity and easy to access through the year in land-locked Kottayam.
With the money earned from selling the farm’s produce, my grandfather and his sons would stock up on provisions and dry fish, bundle their buys into a jute bag called chelavu and head home. Once back, the fish would be stored in baskets hung in the kitchen, high above the ground and the wood fire adupu (chulha), kept safe from cats and mice. Each day of the ensuing week, the fish would be soaked in water to get rid of its excess salt, roasted in the open fire and then crushed on the arakallu (stone grinder) with green chillies, curry leaves and shallots into a delicious, salty, pungent chutney. Oil, a precious commodity, was reserved for seasoning, flavour and moisture at the very end. The dry fish chutney would be served to the plantation or farm workers who came in, and were paid partly in filling starch heavy meals of kappapuzhuku (stewed tapioca) and dried fish for their days of heavy labour. The family would consume it with kanji.
In my quest to make the same dried fish chutney here in Mumbai, I learned a few lessons as I tweaked the chutney to my taste. This is a dish with very few ingredients and each of them play an important role. To start with, a fleshier fish makes for less poky bones in your chutney. The tiny mandelis or similar fish are tasty, but the zillions of tiny pricks, while not lethal, will definitely steal some of the joy from the chutney. They maybe tougher to find, but shallots or Madras onions as they are called in Mumbai, are quintessential to this dish. You could add more if you want to counter the saltiness of the fish, but make sure you also increase the chillies if you do. Substituting the shallots with onions, simply will not be the same thing at all. Substituting red chillies for the green ones will work for dry fish, but the dried red ones definitely work better with shrimp.
Coconut oil is another flavour component that cannot be compromised on. Fresh flavourful oil cuts through the salty fish and spicy chillies, and is key to the perfect rounded flavour. Balance is key and as you crush the chutney, make sure you tweak the balance to work for you. Remember more chilli for heat, more shallots for sweetness and more curry leaves for that herby touch. Your chutney will still be saltier than any other you are used to so make sure the rice congee is unsalted. Here’s how I go about it.
Recipe for Kerala dry fish chutney
1/2 cup dry fish or shrimp (preferably fleshy rather than bony fish)
1 sprig curry leaves
1 scant cup shallots, sliced
3-4 tbsp coconut oil
9-12 dried red chillies or fresh green chillies
1. Soak the fish in water for 30 mins. Squeeze and discard the briny water. Rinse the fish thoroughly to remove dirt as well as to get rid of the salt.
2. Stir fry the fish in coconut oil till cooked through. Make sure the fish does not brown to a crisp.
3. Dry roast or fry the chillies till fragrant and puffed.
4. Add in the sliced shallots to remaining oil from the fish and cook till just softened.
5. Place all the ingredients in a mortar and pestle or grinding stone and crush into a coarse paste. I like starting with half of each ingredient and crushing it in batches so I can add more of whatever I want to get the balance that’s desired.
Recipe for Kanji or Congee made with Kerala rice
1 cup rice
5-6 cups of water depending on how soupy you want your congee
Ghee for drizzling
1. Wash the rice well and place in the pressure cooker with the water.
2. Bring the cooker to a whistle on high heat. Lower the heat and continue to pressure cook for upto four whistles.
3. To enjoy congee, drizzle a spoonful of ghee over a bowlful, top with some of the chutney, stir and eat.
Note: The ghee in congee may not be traditional, but it's definitely delicious.