Meen Kuzhambu is TamilNadu’s pride. It is something we can safely call ours, originally conceived and prepared (and being prepared) in TamilNadu. No fusion-confusion here. I am recent convert. I wasn’t a Meen Kuzhambu fan earlier. In fact I am not a huge fan of Kuzhambu in general. But I have slowly started to appreciate the nuances of a well-made Meen Kuzhambu – soft, flaky perfectly cooked fish drenched in a wonderful medley of hot, tangy and spicy kuzhambu. Meen Kuzhambu tastes best with hot steamed rice and hot pan fried fish fillets. It also goes splendidly well with Idli or Dosai. Making a good Meen kuzhambu they say is an art, not everybody can do it. I’d like to disagree. A good Meen Kuzhambu is a piece of art but I think if you can master the 3 important components of making the Meen Kuzhambu, you can make some beautiful art too.
The first, most important component of it is the cleaning part. If you’ve cleaned the fish well, you’re kuzhambu will not smell fishy. Make sure to scale the fish thoroughly by scrubbing the fishes, skin side down on a coarse stone. Once scrubbed properly (you should see whitish scaly stuff run out), the skin side should be a wee bit coarse and not as slippery and smooth as before being scaled. Rinse well in 2 or 3 changes of water. The second component is extracting the tamarind juices. Now, this seems too trivial but it isn’t. The proof of the kuzhambu is in the puli (tamarind). Soaking the tamarind in water for about half an hour makes it easier to extract the juices. Once you’ve extracted the first juices, add water in small increments (half a cup at a time) squeeze and extract the juices and strain. Repeat till you have the strained tamarind juice which is roughly the same amount as the amount of Kuzhambu you’ll finally end up with. By adding small increments of water, you extract better without diluting too much. The third component is about getting the consistency right. Meen Kuzhambu is not a very thick kuzhambu, but it shouldn’t be too runny either. Usually when the kuzhambu boils, it is time to drop in the fishes. At this stage do the back of a ladle/karandi test to check if the kuzhambu lightly coats the back of the ladle/karandi. If it doesn’t, then simmer on low till it does. When the kuzhambu coats the back of a ladle, it is time to drop in the fishes. If you’re able to execute these individual components well, then you’re on your way to making an awfully good Meen Kuzhambu for sure.
Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time – 12-15 mins
Fish – 8 pieces cleaned (any variety) Tamarind extract – 4 cups using 2 lemon sized tamarind pieces Red Chilli powder – 2 tbsp Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp Salt to taste Onion – 1 large chopped fine Tomatoes – 1 Large halved Mustard seeds Oil – 1 tbsp
1.Scale the fishes and rinse thoroughly in 2-3 changes of water. Drain water, pat dry and set aside.
2.Grind together the ingredients called for under “ground paste” with very little water to a coarse paste. Set aside.
3.Soak the tamarind in 2 cups of water initially. Squeeze and extract the juices. Strain through a sieve. Again add ½ a cup of water to the tamarind pulp and repeat. Continue extracting the juices till the tamarind is almost dry and you have roughly 4 cups of strained tamarind extract which should be roughly the amount of kuzhambu that you’ll end up with. You can adjust all other proportions according to the amount of kuzhambu you need.
4.In the tamarind extract, add salt, red chilli powder and turmeric powder and mix well. Squeeze the halved tomatoes by hand in the tamarind extract. Retain the tomato pulp separately. Once you’ve added the spice powders, salt and tomato juices to the tamarind juice, taste and adjust the seasoning.
5.In an earthenware pot, heat oil and when hot add mustard seeds and let splutter. When they’ve spluttered, add the chopped onions and fry till translucent. Add the reserved tomato pulp and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Now add the ground paste and fry for another 2 minutes.
6.Pour in the tamarind extract and let it come to a boil. At this stage, the kuzhambu should lightly coat the back of a karandi. If the kuzhambu is too runny, simmer on low for a few minutes till it is the desired consistency.
7.When the kuzhambu starts boiling, drop in the fishes and again let the kuzhambu come to a boil. Switch off. Make sure the fishes are patted dry before dropping to avoid thinning the kuzhambu.
8.Serve with steamed rice and fried fish.
Meen Kuzhambu is traditionally made in earthenware pots as it renders it a distinct flavour, but you could make it any other pot as well.