There are those moments when a culinary discovery in your part of the world can surprise and delight you even more than an exotic dish in a faraway land. Given that holidays might be at least a few months away in a post-COVID world, your neighbourhood or city could be the new spot to unearth culinary surprises and treasures. I remember such a moment a few years ago, in one of my friends' houses at North Chennai where I first tried Sura Puttu (or simply scrambled shark) for the first time. It's sad that North Chennai's culinary delicacies and food from the fishing communities along the Chennai coastline don't get the attention they deserve. It's these fishing hamlets that were the starting point of Madras, now Chennai. They're now home to some of the city's most vibrant fish markets where fresh catch of the day is a given. And it's here that the shark tale unfolds.
A few months ago, Sea Salt, a seafood restaurant with a strong inclination towards the marine environment ran a promotion that put the spotlight on delicacies from Chennai's fishing communities, including Pulicat, close to the Andhra Pradesh border. Sea Salt is built around in-season fishing. The focus is not just about healthy oceans but also the welfare of the fisherfolk. It's here that I discovered the simplicity and great flavours of recipes that lean on marine treasures from the Coromandel coast. There's the Yera Karakal (Crunchy prawn), an easy recipe that you can try at home. All you have to do is wash red shrimps (don't deshell them) and toss into water in a pan, add rock salt and dried red chillies. Slow cook the shrimps till the water evaporates and slow roast the shrimps once the water evaporates till the shrimps get crispy.
(Also Read: 5 Regional Fish Curries That Define India's Seafood Culinary Heritage)
The Sura Puttu is usually made with the milk or baby shark. It's not a fish that you are guaranteed to find in the city's fish markets on any given day. And then there are concerns around dwindling shark populations in the Bay of Bengal. This dish is deeply ingrained in the food culture of many coastal towns and villages in Tamil Nadu. It's a popular remedy for cough and cold and also recommended for lactating mothers. The key process is cleaning the shark, marinating it in salt and turmeric before you steam it. I've seen a few homes in North Chennai use a idli steamer to steam it instead of cooking it in boiling hot water. This ensures you retain the curative properties of the fish. A simple medley of spices and flavours that include shallots, garlic, ginger and green chilli are tossed typically with gingelly (sesame) oil before they're blended with the scrambled shark (after it the steaming process). My friend served it with steaming hot rice and rasam. It's the best way to enjoy this dish.
I requested for this dish at Sea Salt, but Chef Harish Rao, who helms the kitchen politely declined. The restaurant's menu does not include endangered marine species. Harish has visited many homes among fishing communities in Chennai for recipes and he stumbled upon another version of the Sura Puttu, that's made with mackerel. In fact, many homes in Tamil Nadu that are conscious of sustainable fishing use other marine fish like Sea Bass or Halibut for this dish. The Kanangeluthi (Mackerel) Puttu is one of the tastiest dishes I've sampled at any seafood restaurant in India. You can try it at home:
Kanangeluthi (Mackerel) Puttu
Recipe Courtesy: Harish Rao -Brand Chef, Sea Salt, Chennai
Mackerel Fish- 800 gm
Sliced onions- 200 gms
Curry Leaves Chop- few sprigs
Ginger Chop- 20 gms
Green Chili Chop- 20 gms
Garlic Chop- 15 gms
Cumin Powder- 3 tbsp
Turmeric Powder- 2 tsp
Salt- to taste
Lemon- 2 nos
Clean the Guts of Mackerel Fish and keep aside
Boil the Mackerel Fish with little salt and turmeric.
Once the fish is boiled, remove the flesh and bones separate and keep aside.
Squeeze out the extra water from the fish.
In a separate bowl, add the Onions, Curry Leaves, Green Chilies, Garlic, Salt, Cumin Powder and Turmeric Powder.
Add oil to a Kadai, once the oil is hot enough add cumin and the fish mixture. Mix well.
Sauté the fish mixture till it is done, it becomes crunchy and crumbly.
Squeeze a lime and add some chopped coriander leaves.
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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.