When I hear about fish cooked in a deep, earthy red sauce from my seafood seller or when I read about it being made by any number of cultures, I invariably think of meen kuzhambu, the south Indian version of this dish. Everyone I can remember who ate fish in India enjoyed this dish, however, I can’t remember a time when I enjoyed it like the rest. Now, I think, I do.
Here’s a method to make meen kuzhambu:
Salmon (fillets and optional head): 1 pound of fillets
Shallots: 1 cup, chopped
Garlic: ½ cup smashed
Curry leaves: about 8
Vadagam (or a mixture of cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds): about ½ tbsp
Tamarind (or lemon): small marble-sized ball
Red chilli powder or paprika
Oil (gingely or sesame or any other cooking oil)
If using tamarind, soak a small amount of the dehydrated tamarind pulp in water to extract juice. In a heavy bottom vessel, season oil with vadagam (or optional spices), sautée chopped shallots, garlic and curry leaves until the shallots turn slightly translucent; add chilli powder, turmeric and salt; add tomatoes and cook a few minutes; add enough tamarind extract and water to taste and let cook for about 30 minutes at a gentle simmer; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary (if using the salmon head, add it to the liquid mixture for the 30 minute cooking period and remove after). Add salmon fillets, simmer the poaching sauce for a few minutes and turn off heat to allow the salmon to complete cooking to desired doneness. Serve the fish with the sauce as is or after refrigeration for a day to allow the flavors to blend more deeply. The meen kuzhambu can be served as is or with rice or dosai.
I acquired a taste for meen kuzhambu. What helped me do so was the experience of similar dishes in other cultures - the bouillabaisse and the cioppino as an example - the bold flavors and the fascinatingly similar stories that try to explain its origin: seaside town, fisherman’s dish made with leftover fish and fish parts combined with simple robust local ingredients, and the makings of a regional staple. The more I came across fish stews and soups from other cultures, the more I wanted to learn to make meen kuzhambu until recently when I started to make it frequently enough that my wife wondered why the transformation in me. To me, I grew to like meen kuzhambu through my experience of similar dishes from other cultures.