In almost the same way that many Mumbaikars still can't get themselves to say Mumbai - opting instead for Bombay, many Chennaites still cling to Madras. They will tell you that Madras is an emotion and Chennai is a city. That's one reason why many things intertwined with the identity of the city - especially among global audiences, continue to retain the Madras prefix. Food is a big part of that identity; it's why you still find Madras curry powder on supermarket shelves in London and then there's Madras fish curry.
Many global chefs have come to the city in pursuit of this earthy recipe and have done their bit to popularise this iconic dish. Of course, despite their best intentions there are jarring inconsistencies, like suggesting basmati rice as an accompaniment with this spicy, tangy fish curry. It's almost like suggesting Kerala matta rice as an accompaniment for Rajma (instead of basmati rice). It's not just global gourmands, I've seen premier restaurants and chefs across India stumble occasionally in their interpretation of Madras fish curry. I've had to keep a straight face and be polite when asked about my feedback.
(Also Read: 10 Local Dishes You Must Try in Chennai)
You're unlikely to hear the term Madras fish curry in Chennai (I can already sense the 'Madras' loyalists taking offence). It's meen (fish) kuzhambu here and there are few dishes that are romanticised in popular culture (especially in Tamil cinema) like this wonderful dish that is truly an explosion of flavours. This is a dish that originates in Chennai's fishing hamlets that have been here long before the British established modern Madras as we know it in 1639.
I've had the opportunity to interact with some home chefs in Chennai whose signature dish is the quintessential Meen kuzhambu. It was wonderful to meet one of these experts at Sea Salt, a Chennai restaurant that promoted sustainable fishing and put simple, local flavours under the spotlight. Chef Harish Rao, (who was involved with this project), has explored some of Chennai's fishing communities in his search for authentic recipes. He also believes that the term Madras fish curry has been loosely used for almost any fish curry from Tamil Nadu cooked with tamarind and in earthen cooking pots.
There's more than one way to make a Meen kuzhmabu in Chennai. Here's one authentic version:
Meen Kuzhambu recipe
500 gm King fish
1 lime sized ball tamarind
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp lime juice
2 1/2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp pepper corns
7 red chillies
25 gm garlic cloves
25 gm ginger
100 gm grated coconut
1/2 cup sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
4 sprigs curry leaves removed from stalks
100 gm shallots
100 gm red tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves
- Clean and wash the fish thoroughly with turmeric powder, chop into cubes, Soak the tamarind and extract juice after an hour.
- Drain the fish cubes, and marinate with chilli powder, salt and lime juice for an hour.
- Heat the oil in a kadai, and fry the cumin and coriander seeds, pepper corns and red chillies. When they change colour add the garlic and ginger and fry for 2 minutes. Add grated coconut and remove from fire. Cool and grind into a smooth paste.
- Heat the oil in a clay pot and temper with mustard and fennel seeds and when they splutter, add the shallots and brown slightly. Add the tomatoes and sauté till they are soft. Mix in the spice paste, saute; for 2 minutes, add the turmeric powder, tamarind extract and salt, and let the mixture simmer for 15 minutes till the masala is well blended. Add a cup of water if the gravy is too thick.
- Add the fish pieces, and gently simmer for about 7 minutes or till the fish is cooked.
- Add coriander leaves and remove from heat, cover and keep in clay pot till serving time.
Madras fish curry is spicy and tangy.
Sundavecha Meen Curry
Recipe Courtesy: Harish Rao - Chef and Culinary consultant
Chef Harish's trails in North Chennai helped him unearth this unique recipe that he calls a fishing hamlet curry. It's a popular recipe in areas like Kasimedu - home to one of the city's largest fishing harbours, and doesn't use tamarind. This one's usually made with Sankara Meen or local red snapper. It's not unusual for some locals in these fishing communities to use bricks to remove fish scales while cleaning the fish. I struggled to find the English equivalent for 'Sundavecha' but it refers to the process of reducing a gravy by simmering or reheating. It's why it tastes even better a day after it's cooked.
For the paste:
2 tablespoon sesame oil or (gingelly oil)
shallots 150 grams
1/2 cup fresh shredded coconut
500 grams Mackerel
2 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves
2 onions, sliced
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoon red chilli powder
3 teaspoon coriander powder
1 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- Heat sesame oil in a pan and add in the shallots and fry till slightly golden.
- Then add the fresh shredded coconut and fry on low flame until its golden. Grind to a smooth pasting adding up to a cup of water. Grind the mixture to fine paste . Set aside.
- Heat sesame oil in a pan until hot. Add in the mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds. Let the mustard seeds splutter. Add in the sliced onions and curry leaves. Sauté till the onions are soft.
- Add in the masala powders Turmeric, Chilli powder and Coriander Powder and sauté on low flame.
- Grind the tomatoes in a small mixer to a paste. Add it to the pan.
- Fry until the mixture is completely dry.
- Add in the ground shallot-coconut mixture. Wash the mixer with half cup of water and add back to the pan. Add in an additional cup of water.
- Let it simmer covered for 20 minutes on low flame.
- Stir the curry once or twice when simmering. After 20 minutes, add in the fish. Cover the pan again and cook for 7-8 minutes on low flame. Remove from heat.
- Let the curry rest for at least one hour. The fish Curry taste better if its cooked a day before.
- Serve with rice.
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.