A Simple Traditional Kerala Fish Curry

Preparation and ingredients of traditional fish curry differ in various regions across Kerala. The one described below is popular around Cherthala and Alleppy. The use of kudampuli is a specialty and one of the the major differences from other regions.

Courtesy: Rosmi Thomas Koottunkal

1. Fish (Preferably boneless) - 12-15 medium pieces
2. Chilli Powder: 2-3 Tea spoon
3. Turmeric Powder: 1/4 Tsp
4. Ginger: 1 Piece (1 inch) crushed
5. Green chilli: 5 Nos
6. Garlic: 4-5 cloves
7. Salt to taste
8. Coconut Oil: 2 Tsp
9. Curry Leaves - 1 stalk
10. Kudampuli (scientific name: Garcinia cambogia) - 2-3 pieces

Saute Ginger, green chilli, curry leaves and garlic in the coconut oil (preferably in an earthen pot). Soak the powders to a paste and add them. Saute for 30 seconds (take care not to burn the mixture). Add 1 cup (250ml approx) of water. Add kudampuli, fish pieces and salt. Cover and cook until clear coconut oil settles on the surface.

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…

The other day I was watchingNammal Thammil’ (‘Between Us’, to translate roughly) an interactive talk show on Asianet TV. This is a popular program in Malayalam television, and for many years it has held its place against competition. The USP of the show is the host himself, the very likeable, self-deprecating, Mr. Srikantan Nair, whose mannerisms are now staple fare for the mimicry artists in Kerala. I understand he is a top official in the Asianet TV (MD?).

Normally, the Nammal Thammil participants are divided into three groups. The first group consists of representatives of a particular professional category, such as aspiring playback singers, TV Actresses, magicians, astrologers, and even, hold your breath, contract killers in face-masks as was the case on one famous occasion. The second group is made up of experts from the media or social organizations/ agencies, who generally act as interlocutors of the first group. The third group is the audience in the studio, whose members chirp in with debating points, or rather sharp opinions, from time to time. Mr. Srikantan Nair is the fulcrum around which the whole show moves, and it is quite interesting to watch how he manages the balancing act, literally running between the three groups.

On this particular day the first group was made up of participants from another Asianet show for young singers, ‘Munch Star Singer’. Before you start thinking this is about the culinary habits of cannibals, let me hasten to clarify- ‘Munch’ is a biscuit company who sponsors the show, and hence the somewhat weird sounding caption. In the second group were the proud and adoring parents of the main protagonists of the show. They sat there, their eyes fixed on the respective offsprings, ready to defend the progeny at short notice. But these kids did not need to be defended.

Munch Star Singer’ (hereinafter described as MSS) is the junior sibling of another mega show on Asianet TV, ‘Idea Star Singer (ISS)’, a show sponsored by the Idea Cell-phone company the contestants of which come from the age group 16-25 years. MSS is for kids, but of course, it is as fiercely contested as the ISS, with the usual exultations, heartbreaks, and tears, around which these reality shows on television are built and TRPs earned.

The MSS contestants have been brought to this special edition of Nammal Thammil. A first look at the participants is somewhat a shock for me. The contestants are not merely young, a few of them are almost toddlers, or so they look. Some of them even speak with a pronounced lisp, may be the result of parental pampering. The Nammal Thammil show seems like a recess for these kids from their regular work (which is MSS). The kids are a handful for the otherwise able Srikantan Nair. He looks out of his depth trying to get his grip on them. They sit there on the stage in deep chairs, their heads barely rising above the backrests. They are a boisterous lot, totally uninhabited, which is again unusual for kids in this part of the world. It is clear these kids have been exposed to the glare of public attention from a very young age. They are able to keep up a continuous banter with each other and with the anchor, and also with the audience.

The show also had the kids singing their favorite songs. They look so young and vulnerable and speak in children’s voices, but when they start singing they become different persons. The songs the children render are difficult compositions originally sung by experienced singers, some of them in their fifties and sixties. The voices of these children undergo a transformation when they sing these songs. They sing in almost adult voices, which I find somewhat frightening.

I have been a listener of songs in many languages by legendary singers for many years. When I listen to the songs of KJ Yesudas sung in the 60s, his voice has an endearing vulnerability of the post-teen. As you listen to his songs over the following decades you can feel how his voice is evolving and maturing with age. It is a long process, and his voice reaches its full-bodied flow at the end of 80s. But when I listen to these children I immediately realize they sound, or they want to sound, like adults. There is obvious talent on display, but there is something disconcerting too there. I get a feeling that these are like runners who want to begin their race somewhere towards of the end of the track. Not for them the long journey.

They are very media savvy too. The quick repartee, adult wisdom, measured opinions and views fall easily from their lips. I feel the same way when I listen to how the child actors in Hindi movies speak wisdom, though there is a difference- in those movies the child simply mouths the stock dialogues prepared by some crude semi-literate script-writer. But this is real life, the MSS kids are talented, except that they are performing on the terms set by the adult world. The deft turn of phrase, and the songs in the adult voices, are sometimes so natural. I only wish their childhoods are intact.

These kids are gifted.... and I wish they realize their talents in full measure.

Beauty and Terror: Introduction to Pallippuram Lore

For a stranger who wanders into this fairytale land the lush green countryside would seem like an abode of peace and tranquility. It lies under the canopy raised by coconut trees, languorous in the sweaty heat of the summer, playful and inviting when the heat abates and the landscape turns into a riot of colors, and voluptuous and desirable like a bathing nymph when the rains wash and seed the land.

It would seem in this land people have no right to be discontent, no reason for being poor or hungry, no justification for being afraid. A minister from the north (I think Yogendra Makwana) once caused a huge controversy with his casual remark on seeing coastal Kerala that people here had no right to be unhappy or poor when there were an abundance of beautiful women to be wooed and plenty of coconuts to be plucked. Laurie Baker, a true Malayalee if ever there was one, once said this was the only place in the world where people preferred to build their homes under the trees (though it is not true any more). A contented people living in peace with the nature. That is the picture.

But this land is just like the nymph of the lore, full of beauty, passion and caprice. Terror is an inseparable part of anything so unfathomable. If you had lived and belonged here, you will know this: the land broods. Fear of the unknown, of the dark forces, of the lurking menaces of netherworld, is an inseparable part of the lives of its people. The fear lives on in its lore, its legends, and its interpretations of reality itself.

In a village in the interior of costal Kerala, one grows up imbibing the beauty and grace of its nature. It is all around you. The breeze that plays in the groves, the coconut trees swaying in the wind, the tranquil waters of the lagoons caressing the land in gentle waves, the network of canals and waterways that quicken the vegetation and sustain the greenery, the paddy fields snuggling close to the white motherly hills, the sunsets that turn the blue into gold. Peace pervades the mind. But peace is hardly a catalyst for creativity. Mind wanders beyond the beauty of this reality and invents dark fears.

Objects of beauty and grace become ominous symbols of fearful supernatural elements. There is a manic frenzy in the growth of the vegetation. Weeds and grass overrun the land and it turns a dark green. Tangle of weeds and bushes overgrow village paths. Dangers lurk underneath. The narrow paths turn into corridors of shade when the trees from both sides grow and meet above, shutting out the sun. One is afraid to walk there. There is uncertainty there.

After the sunset the lagoons present an eerie vista. The steely gray of the backwaters has a menacing look. An evil spirit broods there under the dirty sky. As you sit there longer, what at first seemed like only melancholy becomes an apprehension of something malignant. It is in the air. The last crow hurried home. The sky is empty. The trees lean close to the water. Their reflections have vanished. Now there is only a glittering darkness in the water where earlier those reflections moved with the breeze. Evil spirits are awakened from their slumber. They are moving in. The trees are their abode. It is dangerous to sit under those trees at that time. The oppressive atmosphere paralyses the soul.

With the rains come the thunder and the lightning, like malevolent warriors traveling across the sky flaunting their multi-pronged weapons. The gentle swaying of the coconut trees becomes an ominous dance macabre, and the medusa-like heads of the trees swing madly in the wind. The wind howls and screeches through the trees like a banshee, slashing at everything in sight. When darkness falls there is no let up, the dance macabre continues. The rain pounds on the window panes. Something crashes to the ground and there is the cry of an animal, almost inaudible in the howl of the wind. A bolt of lightning throws the fury of the elements outside into stark relief. Silvery ropes are tied across the tops of the trees and some invisible hand pulls at the tangled ropes. There is fear outside the windows.

But the most terrible, heart-constricting fear is in the moonlight. Especially if you are a lonely wayfarer in the night. The distances look unconquerably long. Like a leprous patina the moonlight lies on the hills. Those white hills are special to Pallippuram. They are made up of ‘silica sand’ and are probably the whitest natural objects in the world. In the daylight they looked like heaps of milk powder. Now they are heaps of crushed bones, bleached to their whitest. In the moonlight they look a bluish white though, an eerie bluish white. They sit there in the moonlight, there is one of them every hundred meters or so. The moon is bright, but these hills have no shadow. That itself is frightening. They loom huge as you approach them. And once you pass them, you are afraid to look back. There is a scraggly looking tree just on the side of the large hill, and a pale shadow of the tree lies on the hill. The silence! the cursed silence is like a heavy burden laid across your heart. And when you look ahead you see that shadowy wavering form approaching from the distance. It cannot be human. Your legs feel like they were cast in iron, and your heart pounds. There is uncertainty and fear.

Given Beauty, human mind will invent the opposite, Fear. Fear is the primal element of human psyche, and it is not hope but fear that enables men and women to conduct their lives. Apprehension, fear, uncertainty. These are the three emotions that lie at the roots of creativity. Human life is a continuous effort to make the future safe, and creativity is its tool. Safe for what? Safe for human life! This seems like incestuous logic, a paradox. True, but life is a paradox too.