A birthday in God's own country

A 90th birthday is a special one. In the recent past, we've celebrated birthdays of nonagenarian uncles and aunts and a week ago, it was the turn of my father in law. Hence, the necessity of a trip to Kerala.

I am a terrible traveller. Even for a 2 day trip, I pack as if I am moving house. It's the monsoon season, what if washed clothes don't dry? Ok, pack 2 more sets. And footwear - one pair to wear in the train, one to wear at home, one to wear outside the home, one to wear in case I decide to go shopping. And please don't get me started on the contents of my dressing table drawer...

But this time, there was an additional package- the birthday cake. My father in law loves a good chocolate cake. Of course it wasn't practical to carry a fully decorated cake on a train. A friend had once carried a cake I'd baked for his daughter's first birthday by train and enroute, accidentally sat on it. So this cake was baked, packed into a well padded box, along with the icing, nozzles, icing bags and a spatula.

The distance from Chennai to Kottayam is about 750 kilometers, the superfast train covers the distance in nearly 12 hours. Since my husband and I boarded the train in the night, there was nothing much to see from the windows of the airconditioned coach. But the next morning, I was able to click a few pictures.

The lush green of Kerala's landscape, everyone grows tapioca, coconut and banana plants in their backyard, during the season, these waterlogged patches will become paddy fields.

Rubber trees, the  early morning stillness of a river 

Arriving at Kottayam station, we were met by the birthday boy as well as my sister in law who, deciding to surprise us all with her unexpected presence, had flown in from Dubai the previous day.

We stopped for breakfast at Aariyas Restaurant, a ritual started and faithfully followed for the past 12 years by f-i-l, a big treat especially for our children when they were younger. They still look forward to this.

Dosas and piping hot coffee at Aariyas

It was a short drive home and after after dumping our luggage, we walked across a small patch of grass to visit dad's brother who lived next door. He had celebrated his birthday a couple of days earlier.

We took a quick walk around both the compounds. Lots of trees and these -

A still green pineapple, abundance of bananas and ripening mulberries

So then it was decided that we would organise a birthday lunch but before that, I had a cake to decorate. It was indeed a challenge- being out of my comfort zone. With an improvised turntable, background chatter and unwanted advice offered freely by the husband and sis in law, I managed to decorate the cake without too much of a hassle.

Lunch would be Malabar style biryani and karimeen polichatu. Karimeen is pearl spot, a bony fish that inhabits the Kerala backwaters. Pollichathu is the style of cooking. We were advised to order it from Karimpin Taste Land, a nearby restaurant that specialises in seafood. (www.facebook.com/karimpintasteland.nattakom)

The restaurant had mat enclosed huts which afforded privacy to the patrons. We were led to a waiting area as ours was take out. They were kind enough to allow me to their kitchen where I watched the chef prepare the fish.

The fish had been marinated earlier so into a big cauldron (urali) full of of coconut oil, the cook lowered the masala (curry paste) coated fish. He let it cook on one side, then turned it around and dropped in handfuls of sliced shallots. The shallots were frying on one side, the fish on the other side (told you it was a big cauldron).

Fish in the cauldron

When the fish was done, the cook fished it out and placed it on a broad strip of banana leaf. More sliced shallots were dropped into the oil, a second fish was taken out.

Then an amazing process - with his ladle, he skimmed the top of the oil and lifted out a layer of cooked curry paste. I hadn't seen him putting it in so it must have come off the fish as it was frying. One side of the fish was coated with the paste, then he fished out some of the fried shallots, dropped it over the paste, turned the fishes over and repeated it.

When it was over, he covered the fish with the rest of the banana leaf, put it on a flat pan and lit a fire underneath to bake it a little. And that was it - he placed it on a plate garnished with tomato slices and the fish made its way to the diner who had ordered it. The whole process had taken less than 10 minutes.

Fish with curry paste, covered with the leaf and getting baked

And this was the amazing lunch we had - Malabar style chicken biryani and karimeen pollichathu.

But before that, we sang the birthday song and got the birthday boys to cut the cake.

I bugged an aunt to give me the recipe for this yummy fish so here goes-

Karimeen Pollichathu

2 palm sized karimeen or pomfret
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1/2  teaspoon pepper powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Masala (curry) paste
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder(more if you like it hotter)
1/2 teaspoon whole mustard
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons coriander powder
40 shallots
1" piece ginger, chopped fine
10 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 green chillies, chopped fine(optional)
2 tomatoes, finely diced
1 sprig curry leaves
1 teaspoon vinegar(opt)
Salt to taste
2 banana leaves or aluminium foil for wrapping

Scale and clean the fish well, leaving the head and tail intact.
Make 3 gashes across the fish on both sides.
Mix together chilli, pepper and turmeric powders, spread over both sides of the fish and leave to marinate for about half an hour.
Thinly slice half the shallots, finely dice the rest.
Grind the chilli powder, mustard, turmeric and coriander powders with a little water, keep aside.

Hold the banana leaves over an open flame to let them wilt. Remove from flame.
Heat 2 cups oil in a wok, fry the fish lightly on both sides, remove and place each on a banana leaf.
Remove half the oil, fry the sliced shallots till golden, remove onto a kitchen towel to drain.
Remove all but 3 tablespoons oil, saute the diced onions, ginger, garlic and green chillies for about 7 minutes along with the curry leaves.
At this point, add the ground chilli powder paste and the tomatoes, saute till most of the water evaporates and the oil starts separating.
Season to taste, the curry paste should be thick. Add the vinegar if you need a little more acidity.
Smear half the curry paste over one side of both fish, sprinkle half the fried shallots over, turn the fish over and repeat the process with the remaining paste and fried shallots.
Wrap the fish well in the leaves, place on a baking tray, bake in a preheated 180°C oven for about 30 minutes.
Serve hot.

And I do hope your fish looks as good as this one.

*You could wrap the fish in aluminium foil in case banana leaves are not available.


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