Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fish in Tamarind gravy / Chepa pulusu

I can never get this Telugu verbalization in English text business...for simplicity sake, fish curry will work. This traditional recipe was handed down by my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother (you get the idea), basically its been in the family a very long time. Growing up my sister and I split our mixed south Indian heritage right down the middle, she would represent all that was Telugu and I Tamil. I have always valiantly fought (mostly verbal) for my native birthright but married to a pure bred Tamizhan (Tamilian) made me realize truly how deficient I am in Tamil know how. I mean, my father being one and my living in that state for 4 years obviously didnt suffice to deem the almost revered (seems like) title of being a true representative. This misrepresentation is most reflected in how I cook, there is almost no hint of Tamil-ness...every Indian dish out of my kitchen is out and out Telugu.
Coming to terms with my being Telugu, I will spare you further confusion and get straight to the methodology behind this coastal delicacy. I'd never attempted making this before, because everything seemed so vague. All the measurements are adjusted after smelling, tasting and goodness knows what other sensory perception my mom uses. I found myself doing the same yesterday but attempted to quantitate it to some effect. Its very simple with 3 crucial ingredients: fish, onions and tamarind. The interesting thing about this "curry" is that the measurements are made by the pan (not quantity of fish). Now about the pan, you MUST IDEALLY use one that is about 5 inches deep and whose sides are perfectly perpendicular to the base. The one I'd used was perpendicular for the first 3 inches closest to the base and fanned out towards the rim but it worked fine. Something like this is perfect. Another detail, its crucial to adjust seasoning (salt and chilli) before cooking because this dish doesnt allow for stirring, in fact there is no stirring. No stirring, no spice adjustment, no accurate measurements, it almost seems daunting but really its not as bad as I make it out to be.

Ok, deep breath and here goes,

For a 9 inch diameter pan you will need:

1 very large red onion (yields 3 cups when chopped, if using a bigger/ smaller pan make sure that the chopped onions cover half the pan)
1 lb fish of choice (I used salmon fillets but 2 inch thick slices, not necessarily fillets, of any other fish will also do- the trick here is to have just enough fish to make a single layer around pan)
2 heaped tsp of chilli powder
2 inch (approx) diameter lump of dried tamarind
8-10 green chillies halved lengthwise
Curry leaves (A bunch, optional)
1/2 cup Corriander/cilantro leaves (highly desirable, hubby mistakenly threw mine out so I didnt use any)
3 handfuls of oil (irrespective of the size of the pan)
Salt to taste
Soak tamarind in 2 cups of water for about 10-15 minutes till soft. Still under water, squeeze tamarind between palm and fingers repeatedly (almost like you would manually to juice a lemon) to extract all the juice. Retain the liquid and throw away the tamarind. Filter out any impurities. Toss chopped onions, tamarind juice, chilli powder, salt and one handful of oil into pan. Mix well. Taste and adjust salt and spice. Add fish, pushing almost to the bottom of the pan and arranging fish to line pan in a single layer with some onions above and below. Add about 10 green chilli halves, remaining 2 handfuls of oil. Cover and cook till onions brown, gravy thickens and top of fish peep out of oil (like in image). Garnish with remaining chillies, curry leaves and cilantro. Serve warm with rice.

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