Native flavours

Fish curry, rice, onion, lime & a dollop of curd (missing in this pic) equals bliss!

Discovering new spices and a good ol’ fish curry
Repeat after me, ‘There is nothing like fish curry and rice…’ *big smile* 
I may not have lived in my native place, Mangalore and nor do I visit it every year but when it comes to the cuisine from this coastal town, I can’t think of anything else that comes close to it in terms of flavour, variety and something that packs a punch. Even though we go to Mangalore just for some function or the other, the menu is decided the moment tickets are booked. There has to be crab, prawns, fish fry and fish curry. I don’t know what it is about this place, maybe it’s the water or just the way the food is cooked but it always seems so much more delicious. Oh and the fish curry. Sigh.
On a recent trip to Goa,I was walking down the road near the Mangeshi temple one evening in search of my thrice-a-day fix of the super yummy kokum soda (it’s a drink made with kokum syrup, lime, some masala and soda) when I spotted this old lady who was manning a little shack full of spices. I wouldn’t have given this hole-in-thewall space a second look but then there was some indescribable, almost mystical aroma that drew me towards the place.
The friendly old lady spoke Goan Konkani and thankfully I could understand some. Turns out she was selling a whole load of locally grown spices and other products. I spotted some fresh kokum and immediately grabbed a couple of packets. As I was sniffing around, trying to put my finger on what the source of thus perfume was, the lady probably detected my curiosity and pointed to a heap of black peppercorn-like things at the corner of the shack. I went closer and sniffed a little more (all this sniffing business sounds funny, isn’t it?). That was it. This was the aroma I was trying to decipher. The lady told me it was teppal or Sichuan pepper. Until now I’d only heard about this spice and vaguely remembered tasting it but I’d no idea what it really looked like. Sensing my curiosity, the spice lady (let’s call her that!) gave me a crash course on teppal – within a matter of minutes I knew all about how it is grown, how to check for good quality teppal and the icing on the cake: three recipes using this amazing spice! I looked like I’d finished a masterclass with Jamie Oliver *big grin*. My cousins thought I was mad. My mother was beginning to agree with them. Another aunt wanted the recipes that the old lady gave me, but no way was I going to divulge those!
So that’s all about my teppal adventure. For some time now I’ve been trying out recipes from The Konkani Saraswat Cookbook by Asha S.Philar. Yup, it’s the food we make at home and no, I don’t have all the recipes at the back of my palm. Maybe I’ve taken home food for granted or maybe I was just apprehensive about it. Anyway, the first couple of recipes that I tried from this book were delicious and spot-on. That gave me the confidence to venture into something a little more elaborate and there I was standing proudly in front of a pot of fish curry bubbling away. And now that the fiancé is a huge fan of ‘our’ food, this cookbook is going to be a handbook very soon. Sigh. The things we do for love.
This is one of the first recipes I tried using the teppal. I’ve used mackerel for this curry but you could use pomfret or seer fish too.
Bangda (mackerel) teppal ambat
Adapted from The Konkani Saraswat Cookbook by Asha S. Philar
250 gms of mackerel, scaled, cleaned and cut into half
½ cup of coconut, grated
8-10 red chillies, fried in a little bit of oil (adjust the amount accordingly to your level of spice tolerance)
1 small piece of ginger
5-6 teppals
2-3 pieces of kokum, use 2tsp of tamarind paste to replace this
Salt to taste
Grind the coconut, ginger and red chillies to a smooth paste. Keep this aside. 
That’s the masala
Meanwhile, slightly crush the teppals and soak them in warm water for about 15 minutes. You will get a slightly white-ish juice. At this point you can discard the teppals but I like to leave them on because adding them to the gravy later gives it a more robust flavour.
Mix the ground masala with some water and pour this into a pan. Allow it to simmer until it forms thick gravy. Add the teppal water to this followed by the kokum, lower the flame and let it bubble for a minute or two. 
And the curry happily bubbling away
Now add the fish pieces to this, adjust seasoning and let it simmer until the fish is cooked. Serve hot. I had this with rice for lunch and then with panpole/neer dosa for breakfast the next day. Heaven!
  • You can make a prawn ambat the same way just substitute fish with prawns.
  • For a slight variation (this is explained in the book too) fry chopped onions in some oil and then add the masala paste mixed with water to form the gravy.
  • For best results, prepare this curry the nigh before. This will allow all the flavours to come together by the time you’re ready for lunch the next day. If you can’t do this, make it about four hours in advance. Never serve it fresh off the stove.

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