Malaysia has always been a melting pot of cultures. It’s never more evident than when you get to enjoy dishes from a range of cultures in one sitting.
This is what you can expect at Julia Ujud’s home. The 60-something is a Muslim from Malaysia’s Negri Sembilan state who married into a Malayalee family with strong Keralan roots.
“I started cooking at a young age, getting roped in to help my mother in the kitchen. That’s always the job of the eldest girl, right? Meanwhile, my husband loves the food he grew up eating. And this Kerala red fish curry is a staple for many Malayalees.
“Often, I cook some of his favourites to go with my Negri dishes.”
Julia didn’t get the recipe for Keralan red fish curry – also known as meen curry – just handed to her. She came up with her own version after watching her mother-in-law make it, and then tweaked it along the way. “My family became my guinea pigs. They would give me their opinions and back into the kitchen I went.”
The crucial ingredient
Julia holds up pieces of Malabar tamarind, known as kodampuli, as she stands over her wok. She insists the tamarind is the most important component of the Keralan red fish curry.
“Without this, the curry isn’t authentic. I’m not sure where you can buy these in Malaysia but I often ask relatives who happen to visit Kerala to buy me a bag,” she says.
The tamarind can be stored for an extended period in an airtight container away from the sun, and just need to be rinsed before use.
Julia often uses tenggiri (Spanish mackerel) in the dish but says you can also choose other fish, like kurau (Indian threadfin). The texture of the fish is important, she adds “You should choose the fish that doesn’t flake easily as the curry tastes better the next day. And don’t cut them up too small.”
Like many experienced homecooks cooking from memory and family recipes, Julia doesn’t measure out ingredients. “I don’t have an exact recipe,” she says. “Agak-agak (estimate) measurements will do. For example, if you want it spicier, you can add more chilli powder, or more asam if you like it sour.”
A unique twist
Julia says the curry is traditionally eaten with boiled tapioca. Typically, the tapioca is cut into small cubes and boiled in salt water until soft.
You then grind some coconut, green chillies, garlic, shallots and turmeric powder. Add the paste, some curry leaves and a bit of oil while the tapioca is warm.
But there is one secret ingredient that you probably don’t have in your kitchen, and that may be what makes Julia’s dish so special.
“I like to cook it in my old wok. This is more than 30 years old. I bought it just after I got married and it’s been with me ever since. Somehow food tastes better cooked in this.”
She has one trick that can be tried at home, though. Julia says cleaning the fish with some lime will help rid it of any odour. “In my kampung in Negri Sembilan, we have a lot of lime trees. So, we use it to clean fish and meats before cooking. You can throw in a few with the meat if you need to keep it in the fridge.”
More Keralan touches
Meanwhile, Julia suggests serving the fish curry with a Kerala stir-fry banana dish. “Clean a few green bananas (preferably pisang kari). Cut into small pieces and boil it in salted water and some green chillies.
“In a pan, fry off some sliced garlic and shallots with a pinch of fenugreek, cumin, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Then add the boiled bananas and chillies. Sauté for about five minutes.
“It’s quite simple to do.”
Try it yourself
Want to try Julia’s special Keralan red fish curry at home? Here’s a basic recipe that should help you recreate some of the magic.
1kg of Spanish mackerel or similar fish
3 pieces of Malabar tamarind
3 inches of ginger
3-5 cloves of garlic
5 tablespoons of red chilli powder
2 tablespoons of coriander powder
2 sprigs of curry leaves
½ teaspoon of mustard seed
½ teaspoon of sweet cumin
½ teaspoon of white cumin
½ teaspoon of fenugreek
Salt to taste
- Pound ginger, garlic and shallots into a rough paste with a pinch of salt.
- Heat up some oil to fry off the paste with curry leaves, mustard seed, sweet cumin, white cumin and fenugreek until fragrant.
- Make a paste with a bit of water, chilli powder and coriander powder.
- Add to wok and sauté well.
- Once well cooked, add ¾ of a cup of water.
- Once it starts to boil, add the fish.
- Let it simmer before adding the rinsed off Malabar tamarind.
- Low simmer until fish is cook and the tamarind flavour is completely infused.