Fish favourite

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna tries her hand at the region’s famous fish curry.

I’ve been asking people what their favourite dish is. Fish curry, is always the reply. Given that Kerala, for all its mountains, is a coastal region, I shouldn’t be surprised.

For our third cookery masterclass we were in for a treat. With a kitchen set up outside next to the Vembanad lake, we were going to learn how to make a traditional Keralan fish dish wrapped in banana leaves. The lake itself is an oddity: A lagoon fed by five rivers, is seven kilometres wide and 19 kilometres long, finishes in the Arabian Sea, and, weirdly, is two feet below sea level. No one can figure it out, and we went on to have a discussion over lunch about meteors and myths and all kinds of theories for the lagoon’s improbability.

But there would be no lunch unless we made it, and first, we had to catch the fish.

Luckily for the people eating what we were making for their lunch, we had a lot of help from two local fishermen, otherwise there may not have been any fish at all. They swung out circular nets, weighted down along the edges, into the dykes running from the lagoon, leaping in after them to catch a fish native to the region with a slightly piratical name – Pearl Spot. Then they descaled and gutted them, and we were good to go.

We marinaded the newly-gutted full fish in thin turmeric paste. Turmeric works as a natural antiseptic, so it serves a double purpose, both medicinal and flavour-giving.

We made a basic masala – now familiar to us – with garlic, ginger, green chillis, curry leaves, onion, tomato, and then turmeric, chilli powder and coriander. We used this as a paste which we spread onto a banana leaf, followed by the fish, with more of the tomatoey paste on the top.

Then we wrapped the fish like a Christmas present and put it onto a tray to bake in a super hot charcoal pit oven, known here as a Towa.

We’ve learned lots of ways to cook fish on our travels, but I think this might be my favourite so far. The fish was tender and the sauce was the perfect relish. No wonder fish curry is the dish of choice.


Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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