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A Fishy Tale

Passport & Plate - Kerala Style Spicy-Sweet Shrimp

India | Tuesday, 3 March 2015 | flickr photos

1 bag (400g) large frozen prawns, peeled, but ideally with the tails left on, thawed
2 tablespoons coconut oil (or any other neutral oil) + a little extra
1 large onion, finely diced
2 small tomatoes, finely diced
1 teaspoon sugar


1 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
3 - 4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt to taste

Spice paste:

5 long mild red chillies (or 1 tablespoon mild Kashmiri chilly powder, see spice paste instructions)
About ½ cup hot water
4 - 5 cloves of garlic, crushed


1 tablespoon coconut or neutral oil
10 - 15 curry leaves


How to prepare this recipe
Marinate the prawns – place the thawed, cleaned prawns in a bowl, and add the ginger, red wine vinegar, turmeric and about ½ teaspoon of salt (or to taste) Place in the fridge for at lease 1 hour.

Make the spice paste – soak the dried chillies in the hot water, topping up with a little extra, if required for about 5 - 10 minutes. Drain, reserving the water. Blend to a fine paste with the garlic cloves, adding about 2 tablespoons of the reserved chilli soaking water, or as required to make a loose spice paste. Keep aside. Or - place the mild Kashmiri chilli powder in a bowl, add the crushed garlic and water to make a spice paste. Reduce water to ¼ cup if making this version.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy based pot, and add the marinated shrimp. Cook on a high heat, until the shrimp are just pink. Remove to a bowl.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in the same pan. Add the onions and tomatoes, and fry for 2 minutes.

Reduce the heat and add the spice paste to the pan, and fry for about 3 - 4 minutes, stirring constantly, and adding a little more oil, if required.

Stir in the prawns and fry together for another 2 - 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Stir in the sugar, and adjust seasoning to your taste.

To make the garnish, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small pan, and toss in the curry leaves. Sizzle for about 30 - 40 seconds, then pour over the whole thing into the prawn fry. Serve hot with rice.


The story behind this recipe
As a child, I normally accompanied my father on his trips to the fishing docks, holding my nose and clutching the back of his shirt, observing as he bargained hard for the best fish, vegetables and meat. A year ago, I was back in India, and I wanted to revisit the docks. Dad was reluctant. With my Westernized ways, I was likely to drive up the price of fish. But I prevailed, and at dawn, I precariously balanced myself on his rickety motorbike, and we rode off to the market, me wincing every time we bounced over a pothole.

The smell hits you before you even see the fishing docks, known as ‘bunder’. Dad shooed me away when we got there. It was barely six a.m., and the boats had already docked, bearing the night’s catch. The fish was haphazardly spread around the market, each vendor yelling out prices to tempt the local buyers. I wandered around trying to get as much of the chaos of the market into a photograph. Older ladies shoved me aside if I got in the way of their fish. I bumped into Dad by the fresh prawns. He pretended not to see me, but I gesticulated wildly that I wanted to buy some prawns, so he nudged me away to start the bargaining process.

Back home, mom asked me what I wanted to do with the prawns and I picked this dish. She stood over me while I cooked them, telling me off, while I ruminated that I could be a chef in Canada, but at home, Mom was alpha. Still, between the two of us, we managed to get lunch ready. We filled our plates with local red rice, scooping in the spicy prawns, leftover dal and mango pickles. I wandered out to the balcony to eat - if I craned my neck, I could just about see the Arabian Sea in the distance, framed by lush mango and coconut trees swaying in the brine-scented breeze.

The flavor of the prawns is pure South India, complex flavors all melding into each other. Sweet, spicy, tangy and fresh, with the fragrance of curry leaves – this is a dish that defines the beautiful coast I grew up on. And that's magical, indeed.

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