It was almost as profound a question as 'Does real imitate reel or does reel imitate real?' I was engaged in an engaging yet 'socially distant' conversation with one of Chennai's better known food writers during a sneak preview of Monkey Bar. Positioned as India's first gastropub, Monkey Bar's latest addition to its all-India footprint now includes Chennai. It follows the same template with an equal emphasis on cocktails and sharing plates that satisfy comfort seekers and gourmands alike. The dish that sparked the conversation was the pepper calamari - a tribute to a simple, yet deeply satisfying dish. It's a regular fixture in the street food stalls that dot Besant Nagar beach - one of the city's most popular hangouts. Stalls in and around the beach serve a mish-mash of small plates that often incorporate fresh catch of the day.
Kanava meen in Tamil or koonthal in Malayalam, squid or calamari occupies a special place among Chennai's seafood lovers. A simple dish of calamari fritters or rings is a popular appetiser in many of the city's premium restaurants and bars as well as street food stalls. It's almost like another Marina Beach (Chennai's most visited beach) favourite - thenga maanga pattani sundal (green peas or chickpeas tossed with fresh coconut, raw mango and tempered with curry leaves, dried red chillies and mustard seeds) that has now made its way to many bar menus. Quite a few dishes in Monkey Bar seek local inspiration; the Pepper Calamari is a delicious twist (see recipe) with curry leaves, ghee and pepper with the tang of lemon.
Squid isn't just a favourite in Chennai. One of the tastiest squid dishes I've tried is at the Southern tip of Tamil Nadu - Kanyakumari. The Kanava Thokku (see recipe) is a fiery dish with a thick sauce (or what we all like to call a 'semi-gravy'). One of the many handy tips I got from a home cook in Kanyakumari was to cook squid like mushrooms (without adding water) and always on a medium flame. It's important to not overcook squid, which tends to lend it a rubbery texture and also to cook it with the pan open (without a lid on).
Whether you like a crunchy snack with the chewy textures of squid or a main course that you can try with rice, you will find both these recipes equally scrumptious and relatively easy to try at home:
(Also Read: 10 Local Dishes You Must Try in Chennai)
Pepper Calamari Recipe:
Recipe Courtesy - Monkey Bar, Chennai
Calamari 100 gm
Ghee 10 gm
Mustard Seeds (black) 1/2 tsp
Salt 1 tsp
Lemon Juice 1 no.
Black Pepper Powder 1 tsp
Curry Leaves 1 sprig
Green Chilli 4 chilies
Tempura flour 50 gm
Cold Water 1 1/2 tbsp
Salt 1 tsp
Oil for frying
Combine tempura flour, cold water and salt to make a smooth batter. Keep aside
Heat oil in a pan till hot.
Slice calamari into rings.
Coat the calamari in the batter and deep fry till crisp and golden brown.
In a wok on low flame, heat ghee, add curry leaves and mustard seeds and allow it to crackle.
Add split green chilli, lemon juice and salt.
Add in the deep-fried calamari, increase the flame and toss well till the ghee mixture coats the calamari completely.
Check seasoning and garnish with fried curry leaves and lemon wedge.
(Also Read: How to Make Perfect Salt and Pepper Squid)
Kannava Thokku (Squid masala) Recipe:
Squid 500 gm cleaned and cut into small squares. You will need to buy 1 kg for about 500-600 gm (after wastage)
Shallots- 20 peeled
Garlic - 6 pods
Ginger -2 inch piece peeled and chopped.
Coconut Oil - 1/4 cup
Curry leaves - a handful
Green Chilli - 2 (vertically slit)
Tomatoes - 2 chopped finely
Chilli Powder - 2 tsp
Coriander powder 1 tsp
Turmeric Powder - 1 tsp
Black Pepper Powder - 1 tsp
Fennel Seed Powder - 1.5 tsp
Garam Masala Powder - 1 tsp (optional)
Juice of half lemon
Salt to taste
Take ingredients (shallots, garlic, ginger, chilli powder, coriander powder, turmeric, black pepper, fennel, garam masala) lime juice, salt for grinding in a blender and make it into a coarse paste. Don't add water while grinding.
Mix half the quantity of the ground masala to the squid and marinate it for 30 minutes.
Heat oil in a frying pan, add the other half of ground masala, along with curry leaves and green chillies and cook till golden.
Now add tomatoes and cook till mushy.
Add the marinated squid and cook for 5 mins on a medium to high flame. Do not add water
Let it cook till it reaches a 'semi gravy consistency' and till the squid is ender. Turn off the flame.
This dish tastes best with steamed rice, dosa or even appams.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.