Prawn proud in Pulicat

Women from this seaside town share recipes handed down generations to be replicated in a food festival that is part of the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha

Thirty-nine years ago, K Basheera’s family served guests mutton biryani for her wedding. Mutton is the ultimate feast meat; but if you visited her in Pulicat, she would cook you a dish that is several notches more special: prawn biryani. “I make it every time I have visitors. How else will they get to enjoy what is locally available in our home turf?” she asks, adding with a laugh: “I am sort of boasting our great prawns this way.” Muslim homes in Pulicat hold prawn biryani close to their heart, and last week, Basheera and six other women from her neighbourhood shared her family’s recipe and even cooked the dish for a team from Chennai.

This was part of a documentation in the presence of volunteers from Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, InSeason Fish, and chefs from city-based restaurant Sea Salt. “They loved it,” adds the 53-year-old. The team was in Pulicat to learn traditional recipes from women there: fifteen of them gave a live cooking demonstration of 12 dishes that will be replicated at the Pulicat Seafood Festival to be held as part of the Vizha.

Prawn proud in Pulicat

A large portion of prawns Chennai consumes, comes from Pulicat. And people there get to eat the freshest of catch. As G Rajalakshmi, who participated in the cook-fest puts it, “If I want to cook fish, my fisherman husband simply grabs the net to bring me some.” Over the years, families in the seaside town have perfected recipes that they tailor to the kind of fish available and its fat content. “If the fish is nice and fat, I add lots of garlic to the kozhambu,” says Rajalakshmi, adding that the base for her meen kozhambu is made of tamarind, onions, tomatoes, green chillies, and a spice mix that she grinds with cumin, dried chillies, coriander seeds, among other ingredients.

“Garlic aids in digestion,” she points out. “If the fish is lean, I make the kozhambu with just the masala powder and tamarind base.” The 36-year-old has been cooking with her hands ever since she got married 21 years ago; but she has been cooking with her eyes ever since she can remember. “People would get the sweet smell of my mother’s nethili (anchovi) kozhambu from streets away,” she remembers. “She cooked it with sour mango.” Rajalakshmi watched her mother cook, taking in all the nuances.

Prawn proud in Pulicat

The cook-fest featured such dishes, all of them handed down generations. Chaitanya Krishna, co-founder of InSeason Fish that is collaborating for the food festival, recalls the warmth and pride with which the women served the food. Among his biggest takeaways, he points out, is the fish puttu. “I thought puttu can only be made with shark,” he says. But Rajalakshmi and her team showed that the dish can also be made with kaana keluthi (mackerel). “We make puttu with a variety of fish such as soora (tuna), and small thirukka (stingray),” she explains. The women also made some fragrant crab soup, prawn vadais, and an interesting dish called era karukkudhal.

This was a big hit. “It’s simple — add prawns with the skin intact into a pan, break four dried chillies into it, some salt to taste, sprinkle some water, cover and cook,” says Rajalakshmi. Harish Rao, brand chef of Sea Salt, who was there with his team of three, is all praise for this dish. “It was delicious; the dehydrated prawns had a nice crunch to them,” he says. The menu for the food festival, explains Harish, will feature all the recipes the women demonstrated. “We plan to replicate the dishes in their entirety,” he adds.

Prawn proud in Pulicat

For us in the city, what is going to be a chance to try dishes that originated several decades ago in a small seaside town, is an everyday affair for people there. Households in the region, especially those with senior members, cook fish every day. Rajalakshmi says that if an old woman walked by during mealtime and saw that there was no fish on her plate, she would scoff. She laughs saying, “For us, a meal without fish is not a meal.”

Pulicat Seafood Festival is being held to coincide with World Wetlands Day that falls on February 2. It is on from January 31 to February 2, at Sea Salt, Nungambakkam. The thali, that is available for lunch (12.30 pm to 3.30 pm) and dinner (7 pm to 11 pm) is priced at ₹595 plus taxes. For reservations, call 48682323.

Ode to a seaside town
  • Social activist and writer Nityanand Jayaraman, a volunteer with the Vizha, feels that Ennore-Pulicat wetlands “are not in the imagination of the people of Chennai.” The team chose to showcase cuisines from the region in keeping with the core idea of the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, that of “making invisible places seen, invisible voices heard”. The food festival, he hopes, will “show Chennai the importance of Ennore-Pulicat wetlands not just in terms of food, but also in terms of the city’s water and flood security, ecology, and cultural diversity.”

Kaana keluthi (mackerel) puttu recipe:
  • Ingredients:
  • Mackerel: 2 or 3 (Depending on size)
  • Turmeric powder: one tsp
  • Ginger: A small piece
  • Garlic: A few cloves
  • Pepper: Half tbsp
  • Curry leaves: A handful
  • Green chillies: Two, cut into thin slices
  • Salt to taste
  • Oil: Two tsp
  • Mustard seeds: Half tsp
  • Method:
  • Boil the fish with salt and turmeric powder. Once done, drain the water. Break the fish into tiny pieces after removing the skin. In a pan, heat oil, add mustard seeds, pound ginger and garlic, curry leaves and green chillies. Sauté. Then add the fish, pepper powder, gently stir.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 1:29:03 AM |

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