Mention 'meenthala' curry to see Malayalis go weak in the knees. It’s a delicacy on the dining table. Meenthala is the head of a fish that’s cooked separately. They are pricey too.
If pescatarians have already started drooling over the dish, head straight to Thoppumpady in Kochi. If by any chance you’re heading from Thevara-Kundannoor parts, take the BOT bridge and turn right and drive straight to Thoppumpady Junction. Go no further; to your left stands Kuttante shaappu curry shop!
Here’s a veritable spread of traditional dishes for all foodies on all days except Sundays. And presiding over his realm, shorn of five-star ambience but loaded on ten-star taste is Kuttan chettan, executive chef and main server of his shaappu curries.
Eetta Koori thala (cat fish head) curry is Kuttan’s tour de force. Its taste is matchless and it’s a delight to dig into it. But the platter calls for deftness in handling each and every bite. One misstep and the fish bones go straight to your throat. Tackling a fish head calls for skills of culinary kind.
The dish itself is attractively served. There sits the head, hot and spicy in the midst of sizzling red chilly gravy. You don’t have to particularly order a 'koori thala' when you step into the shop. Kuttan sizes you up the minute he sees you. He knows whether you’re one for such foodie outings or a reluctant eater or even one who shies away from all things fishy. So he serves the curry only to those who will go high of the dish. Koori thala is only for those who are painstaking in their effort to tackle the head and eat it with relish. Koori thala is an intricate deal, not one as easy as a mackeral’s head.
The curry looks a bit intimidating. And you are justified in feeling so, for it is piping hot and extremely spicy. The fish head lies like a volcano in an ocean of spicy molten lava!
How to deal with koori thala? It has to be held from the rear. This is the fleshiest part of the fish head, where no bones are sighted. The flesh is to be dipped in the gravy and relished. If the curry is hot and unbearably spicy, it’s better to have it wrapped in rice. There’s nothing as tasty as fresh koori thala curry and to give it a miss would be a huge loss indeed.
The date with the curry is not over. There’s more style to its substance. Once the fleshy parts are eaten, it has to be flipped over. The spongy part now lies face up. This is perhaps the tastiest part of the fish.
Koori thala curry is a mix of red chilly powder, coriander powder, garcinia in plenty, big onions, green chillies, ginger and garlic. The masalas are mixed and sautéed in coconut oil to which the fish is added. It then gets cooked over a low flame till the flavours ooze out and make for a divine dish. The dish hots up and gets spicier as you eat more of it. The best part of the head is the marrow lodged within. Hold the pointed end of the fish to you lips and suck in. The marrow or the brain oozes out and settles in your mouth. That’s the last lap of your race with koori thala. Never bite the head, lest you should miss out on the high protein, squishy brain, which happens to be the final bow.
Kuttettan’s 'kanambu' (mullet) curry is easier to deal with. But like all shaappu curries, this too is spicy. But the finely cut round pieces of tomato will help you go easy on the dish.
Now’s the season of eetta koori. But when the seasons turn lean, be prepared to dine on what’s available. If sting ray is the catch of the day, you should be up to a delicious 'therandi' curry. Pork, crab, shrimp and other traditional curries are served with regular meals. Kuttan’s jackfruit seed (chakkakuru) mezhukkupuratti is just too tasty and a delicacy too.
How to make kanambu curry
Saute onions (preferably shallots), ginger, green chillies, garlic and curry leaves and add red chilli powder, coriander powder and turmeric powder. When it’s almost done sautéing, add tomatoes and kudam puli (garcinia). Pour the required measure of water and bring the mix to a boil. Add the fish. When the fish is done and the gravy thickens add thick coconut milk and set aside.
Please note: Kuttan says it’s best to use one teaspoon of chilly powder to one-and-a-half teaspoons of coriander powder when cooking mullet.
But for koori thala, it’s one-and-a-half teaspoons of chilly powder to one spoon of coriander powder. The rest is Kuttan’s magic!