Fragrant spices of India season fish, vegetable curry

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The highlight of my recent trip to southern India was a week’s worth of traveling through the lush, tropical state of Kerala. Jungle palms laden with bananas and coconuts, exotic backwaters afloat with glamorous houseboats and tea, coffee, and spice plantations dotting the seductively gorgeous landscape. It was fascinating to see tea leaves in their natural state, pepper trees boasting clusters of bright green peppercorns, tree bark yielding cinnamon sticks, and vanilla beans hanging on orchid vines.

Cochin, now renamed Kochi, was our first stop where we visited an ancient synagogue. The Pardesi Synogogue, dating back to the 17th century is in the neighborhood called “Jewtown,” which is one of the centers of the Kochi spice trade. Ginger, cardamom, saffron, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and turmeric can be seen in shop windows arranged in colorful, conical piles. There is even a historic building that houses the Pepper Exchange, the wheeling and dealing there not unlike the stock exchange. Many Jewish names can be seen on business premises as a reminder of what once was.

Today the Jewish community has diminished to fewer than 20 people. There is no rabbi and the elders are qualified to perform religious rituals. Kashrut is practiced by eating mainly fish and vegetarian dishes.

Inhaling those distinctively pungent aromas whetted my appetite and curiosity for what lied ahead at dinner. Since I never met a spice I didn’t like, anticipation for the Spice Village Restaurant’s complex culinary delights grew more tantalizing by the moment. A walk past the hotel kitchen provided more extraordinary sights and fragrances. My expectations were met by a delicious meal containing the spices we encountered that afternoon intermingled with coconut, fish and vegetables.

The following recipes were adapted from “A Celebration of Spices — Kerala Recipes from Spice Village.” They call for curry leaves (no relation to curry powder), which can be found in Indian or specialty markets.

Meen Peera (Coconut-Laced Fish) | Serves 4

1 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp. black mustard seed
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
2-4 jalapeño chilies, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, peeled and cut in julienne strips
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. turmeric
15 curry or basil leaves
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water
1 lb. white fish fillets, cut into 2-inch chunks
3/4 cup grated coconut

In a skillet, heat oil. Add mustard seeds and when they start to pop, add garlic, onion, chilies and ginger. Cook until fragrant about 3 minutes. Add turmeric, curry leaves, salt and water. Cook about a minute and add fish. Cover and simmer about 10 minutes or until fish is done. Add coconut, stir and serve.

Avial (Mixed Vegetable Curry) | Serves 4

1/2 tsp. cumin seed
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
5 cups mixed vegetables of your choice, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small onion, sliced
2-4 green chilies, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
1 Tbs. turmeric
10-15 curry or basil leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup water
6 Tbs. yogurt

In a blender make a paste of cumin seed and coconut and set aside. In a medium saucepan combine vegetable, onion, chilies, turmeric, basil or curry leaves, salt and water. Cover and simmer until tender, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in coconut paste. Simmer another 2 minutes. Add yogurt and stir well.

Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Rebecca Ets-Hokin. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].