The curious case of the Maldivian Fish curry

I recently discovered the difference between holidaying and travelling. When I travel I like to explore the local, food being top on the agenda. Being a people’s person, I love connecting with the local folks too. It gives me a sense of holistic enjoyment when there are cordial undercurrents flowing between me and the people around me. I feel rooted in an alien land, hence at home in the heart. My recent trip to Maldives was not a traditional travel initiation. Meaning, it incorporated no ‘local’ element. It was all about isolation, loosening and laying back.It was about Holidaying. Divya and I were confined to an island, on which the resort we stayed in is built. So we had no opportunity to interact with the locals or have a shot at the local food or restaurant culture. We were on boarded to a speed boat from the airport that alighted us at the resort. Anyway that’s typical Maldives for you – All holiday properties are located on islands, knit closely in the defined surface area of the Indian ocean that’s called the ‘Maldives’.  The capital city of Male, is located adjacent to the airport, which is on the island of Hulhule. The sight of the archipelago from the aircraft looks like a painting of paradise! The white sand specks on an ocean of blue, is garlanded by a beautiful shade of green! It’s soulful scenery.

Food was anyway not a priority on this trip. Celebration was. Unwinding was. So was enjoying the water. So I came in expecting to eat buffet food 3 times a day. A la carte is not an option in the resort. The resort dynamics is a bit different in this part of the world. The island country, I gathered through the locals, offers very limited scope to cultivate vegetables and fruits to feed the indigenous population, let alone the tourists. So most staple raw food you will see converted into cuisine on your plate are imported from neighboring countries. So ala carte is expensive sans value, even if it was offered and an option it must be in some premium properties.

The Island on which the resort stood
The Island on which the resort stood

I have an insider mindset about the ‘buffet’ concept. Some of the contents on the list are ‘rechauffed’, always. Rechauffing is a technical term in industrial kitchens. Its euphemism for re-making or renewal.  It’s all about re-doing and re-serving a dish with a new name and character. For example, the finely grated carrot that was on the breakfast buffet surely found its way into the cream of carrot soup served for supper. Similarly, the south Indian style tomato rice served on day 2 for lunch was converted into tomato flavored savory rice with a continental facelift with black olives. It was on serve for dinner on day 3.  So in principle, I like to avoid buffet food. Then again, food was no priority on this trip – especially because of how and why it was planned!

Having said that, I have to admit that I tired of the food on day 1! After washing off my hangover and an invigorating session of snorkeling on the clean green beachfront I was craving for a luscious fill.  And the sight of the buffet food, even though presented very artfully and interestingly in an ambient corridor, left me disinterested. It was typical hotel spread –  an inter-continental menu.  The tomato ketchup and tobasco sauce on offer turned me off. Completely.  Its blasphemy to put these things with premium standard food.  While I sat finishing my plate with a minor scorn, an idea bulb rang a siren in my head! Eureaka!  I summoned the friendly waiter and asked for what would be in store for him in the kitchen later! He blinked innocently and stammered for an answer. I tried again. I asked him for ‘staff food’. I asked him if he could get me some sort of a local curry / gravy from the staff food. He blinked again and went missing, wallowing into the huge corridor. The next minute I saw another smiling friendly looking local man approaching us with a sense of purpose. He was the manager.  We spoke for a bit and I told him about my profession and its many niceties, in a way that he’d blink no more eyelids. He immediately knew where I was coming from. He went away and in no time put a bowl of sizzling hot Maldivian fish curry on my table!  The first bite I took was Divine. I smiled like a Buddha in penance!

The next couple of days continued with the waiters willingly serving me my soulful bowlful! The gravy mixed with steaming hot rice was riot on my senses, making my holiday feel complete. And complete indeed my days were – enjoying a late night drink in the bars overlooking the water, waking late, cut off from the reality through virtual devices, enjoying companionship, trying my hand at scuba diving!

The Underwater Chef

On the night before I was scheduled to leave I was casually browsing the food laid out, in the renewed hope of finding something that would catch the fancy of my taste buds. And Viola! What did I find! My fish curry had graduated from the unlit backdoors to the flashy runway!  It was pristinely presented among all the inter-continental dishes, titled proudly as the ‘Maldivian style fish curry’! My heart swelled with pride. The English guests seemed like they enjoyed the curry but the east europeans I suspect couldn’t find affinity with the spices. But I walked away with a sense of accomplished endorsement!

Sunset from the resort
Sunset from the resort

The staff at the resort comprised large chunks of Indians and Bangladeshis. So it was easy striking a rapport with them. Even otherwise, it was easy with the accommodating locals. I managed to fish out a Kannada speaking boy who conveyed birthday wishes to Divya in Kannada!  The water sports team, headed by Juliann the Frenchman, went out of their way in ensuring we had a great time trying aquatic adventures – especially snorkeling and scuba diving. They conspired willingly with me to create a dramatic underwater greeting for Divya (which in hindsight is the coolest/romantic thing I’ve ever done!) The Sri-lankan pastry Chef was also kind enough to bake her a birthday cake!

The dramatic underwater greeting

This holiday was special for more than one reason.  I enjoyed commanding a new local addition to the menu. The warmth and the honest intent of hospitality nourished the humane people’s side in me!

RECIPE:

This is how it is made:

The curry is really an influence of curries from Western coastal India, Sri Lanka, and parts of Thailand. To make some curry with steamed rice for about 4 to 6 people you would typically need:

300 grams of fresh tuna, if that’s not available easily any firm fish works well. For example: Cod in Europe or Seer Fish in India.

Ingredients for the paste :

Coconut (grated)   50 grams

Coconut Milk 100 ml

Coconut oil 20 ml

Fennel seed  10 grams

Cumin seed  10 grams

Peppercorns  10 grams

Cinnamon stick  ½ inch

Cardamom  2 pods

Turmeric powder  a pinch

Green chili       1 to 2 pcs

Curry leaf       8 to 12

Onion (sliced)  20gram

Garlic (sliced)   4 to 5 medium sized pods gram

Ginger (sliced)       ½ inch

Salt to taste

Here how its all put together:

Mix the grated coconut with the fennel seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric,  green chili, curry leaves ( about 4 leaves).  Toast them on very slow flame till the spices turn slightly brown and release a pleasant aroma. Churn them up to a fine paste and keep aside.

Sprinkle a dash of salt on the fish and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes.

Now in a sauce pan add a few drops of coconut oil, throw in the onion and ginger and sauté it for a few minutes.  Add the rest of the coconut milk and the paste and simmer for about 15 minutes. Adjust the thickness of the curry with water and bring back to simmer.  Now you can throw in the fish and continue to simmer, cook the fish for about 8 to 10 minutes till well done.

Before you pull it off the flame add salt to taste, serve hot garnished with the rest of the curry leaves with hot steamed rice and watch the eyes of the eater smile in bliss

One Comment Add yours

  1. kalpana says:

    very interesting ! Thanks for the vicarious Maldives experience !

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