Gastronomically, the basic difference between northern and southern India is the use of coconut-based curries, as was reinforced to me when I travelled this past November to Kerala, the southern Indian state where the official language is Malayalam. Malayalis cook with coconut oil and use a lot of coconut milk, coconut cream and fresh, dried and grated coconut. What ghee is to north Indians, coconut is to the south. The grain staple is rice and the breads, made with rice flour, are often served with - what else? - coconut chutneys.
I had an opportunity to visit Kumarakom Lake Resort in Kerala. The setting was beyond pretty and the attention paid to food and service was impeccable. After a lunch feast prepared by the head chef, an executive chef led a cooking demonstration for a group of guests. And as I asked my thousands of questions and watched the meal come to life, I thought of how I could incorporate some of the elements in my restaurant back home. For this tilapia pollichatu, a spicy, tangy fish dish, I have adjusted the recipe and added some personal touches, but the essence of southern Indian fare is there. Feel free to use whatever white fish you prefer, but make sure the pieces are no more than six or seven inches long.
Vikram Vij's Tilapia Pollichathu
1 whole tilapia, cleaned and scaled, head removed
1/2 cup fresh coconut milk
1 banana leaf
2 teaspoons ginger
2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt to taste
3/4 cup coconut oil
1 teaspoon ginger
10 curry leaves
1 teaspoon garlic
2 teaspoons dried chili flakes
2 teaspoon dried red chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon fried small onions
3/4 cup tamarind juice
1 teaspoon vinegar
Salt to taste
Mix together marinade ingredients. Wash and clean fish. Cut shallow crisscross slits into both sides of fish and marinate for 5 to 7 minutes.
To make the paste, heat coconut oil in a pan, add ginger, curry leaves, garlic, dried chili flakes, chili powder, turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds and toast spices for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Place cooled oil and spices into a small grinder with onions, tamarind juice, vinegar and salt to taste, then grind into a smooth paste. It should taste tangy and salty. Adjust salt if necessary. Spread paste over both sides of fish and let sit for 15 minutes.
Heat a few drops of oil in a non-stick or cast-iron pan on low. Place the banana leaf in the pan and place the marinated fish on top. Pour coconut milk around fish (not directly over it) and let it cook slowly (about 8 minutes on one side and 8 on the other). After turning the fish over, add more coconut milk if required. The milk will reduce into a light sauce. Once the fish is cooked, serve the whole dish hot at the table. Use rice bread or French baguette to mop up the sauce.
Serves 2 to 3.
Fruity, viscous whites with a strong aromatic quality work best here. Don't be afraid of a little sweetness. Gewürztraminer, especially the typically rich examples from the Alsace region of France, will work nicely, as would viognier or an off-dry riesling. Colombard (mostly grown in France) and Sémillon (especially from Australia) are also good options. Stay away from reds if you can: They'll only lead to warfare in the mouth - and both the fish and the wine will lose.