The original Malayali name for this dish is Eruvum Madhuravum Ulla Chemmeen Varathathu. I now challenge you to say that fast ten times :)
Malayalam is a pretty complicated language, and a lot of Kerala dishes have very complicated names. My favourite South Indian restaurant in Liverpool, Maharaja, had a delicious Kerala aubergine curry on the menu, one that Kay just adored, and it was called Vazuthanangapal curry. Poor Kay always struggled to order it. Though he just told me that they've taken it off the menu now... perhaps no one ordered it because of its name!
I loved growing up on the Indian coast. Fish days were always exciting, and dad would load up on fresh fish, crabs, clams and prawns straight off the dock. Mum would spend the afternoon cleaning the fish, deveining and portioning up prawns and crabs and on clam days we almost always had a delicious clam and dumpling curry or clams with coconut. I really miss the fish and seafood of my childhood, and now I am unfortunate enough to live in a landlocked province, I miss it even more. Ocasionally we are lucky enough to get fresh clams or fish, but I am almost always too impatient to make the slow curries of my childhood and I end up steaming and eating it in a hurry, which I guess is a real shame.
That said, in India, we didn't normally experiment wildly with different dishes from various parts of the country. Indian cuisine is very regional, and its not often that home cooks venture out of their comfort zone. So most of the food we ate was very much traditional, and it was rare to get a taste of a different region, let alone different countries (maybe the odd Chinese food, but to be honest, the Chinese food we ate was as far away from traditional Chinese cuisine... as, well, the moon is from the earth? Hehe) It was only once I grew up and moved to university that I tried out European food, and I still recall my first taste of Italian food... which again, was very different from the traditional Italian food that I eventually ended up eating in Italy :)
But mum was a school teacher in Kerala, also known as God's own country... so we did get some very Keralite food on ocasion. My paternal grandfather was also from Kerala, one of the older plantation owners there, but moved to Mangalore to be with my grandmother. Sadly many of his recipes are no longer with us, as no one thought to write them down thanks to the expectation that Indian recipes would always be passed down through the oral tradition... again, something that has now, sadly, been lost. But that something I am aiming to change. My notebook is now full of old Indian recipes that I hope that I will have the time to make and test soon.
That said, this recipe comes from an excellent book that I was recently sent from India. On ocasion, I get my sister and mum to send me a care package, mainly general items from India that are not available here, like these coconut shell ladles in the pictures for this post, some lovely sandalwood soaps and such like...
This time round I got them to send me a ton of older cookbooks, and my mum sent me this excellent book called The Essential Kerala Cookbook by Vijayan Kannampilly. I already own a few books in this collection, all published by Penguin India, and I've never had a dud recipe ever. Which is really saying something... I do adapt these recipes though, since they make no concession to the less spice tolerant palate, but on the whole I love making these dishes as my everyday meals for the family.
The recipe for these sweet and spicy prawns jumped up out at me when I was reading through the book, and I almost could taste these just from the ingredients. Kannampilly calls this a Christian dish, and I agree, as I have had numerous variations of this dish in my own home. But as prawn dishes go, this is now up there for me as one of the favourites. Its almost too easy and unbelievably quick to prepare, usually taking me less than 20 minutes to make. I start my rice at the same time as the prawns, and when the rice is done, the prawns are sizzling. Add a light salad and that's supper sorted in less than 30 minutes. Now that's what I call a winner of a recipe.
And the flavours? Well, let me put it this way... the first time I made this, my husband, him of the jaded-not-another-for-the-blog-recipe palate, went 'Wow!!! Mich, this is delicious... what on earth did you do to those prawns?' So that's a success, I take it?
The taste is delicious with complex flavours all melding into each other. Considering that this dish has only red chillies as the major spice, that's really saying something. But for me, this is the ultimate comfort food. Sweet, spicy, tangy and fresh, with the fragrance of curry leaves... its a dish that defines Kerala, and the beautiful coast I grew up on. And that's magical, indeed.
Serves 4 - 6 as a side dish
Adapted from Vijayan Kannampilly's 'The Essential Kerala Cookbook'
1 bag (400g) large frozen prawns, peeled, but ideally with the tails left on, thawed
2 tablespoons coconut oil (or any other neutral oil) + a little extra
1 large onion, finely diced
2 small tomatoes, finely diced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
3 - 4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt to taste
5 long mild red chillies (or 1 tablespoon mild Kashmiri chilly powder, see spice paste instructions)
About ½ cup hot water
4 - 5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon coconut or neutral oil
10 - 15 curry leaves
Marinate the prawns – place the thawed, cleaned prawns in a bowl, and add the ginger, red wine vinegar, turmeric and about ½ teaspoon of salt (or to taste) Place in the fridge for at lease 1 hour.
Make the spice paste – soak the dried chillies in the hot water, topping up with a little extra, if required for about 5 - 10 minutes. Drain, reserving the water. Blend to a fine paste with the garlic cloves, adding about 2 tablespoons of the reserved chilli soaking water, or as required to make a loose spice paste. Keep aside. Or - place the mild Kashmiri chilli powder in a bowl, add the crushed garlic and water to make a spice paste. Reduce water to ¼ cup if making this version.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy based pot, and add the marinated shrimp. Cook on a high heat, until the shrimp are just pink. Remove to a bowl.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in the same pan. Add the onions and tomatoes, and fry for 2 minutes.
Reduce the heat and add the spice paste to the pan, and fry for about 3 - 4 minutes, stirring constantly, and adding a little more oil, if required.
Stir in the prawns and fry together for another 2 - 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
Stir in the sugar, and adjust seasoning to your taste.
To make the garnish, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small pan, and toss in the curry leaves. Sizzle for about 30 - 40 seconds, then pour over the whole thing into the prawn fry. Serve hot with rice.