Chemmeen Olathiyarthu is one of our favourite dishes served at the Taj Mahal, so as soon as we moved into our apartment, we headed off to the sea-front to buy some fresh prawns so that I could have a go at re-creating it.
Unfortunately, not knowing what some of the ingredients were, not being familiar with the local shops, and speaking, frankly, awful Malayalam, I utterly failed to buy any kokum!
And the garlic I bought turned out to be shallots. (Don’t ask; I was tired, I didn’t have my glasses on, and they looked like fat purple cloves of garlic, OK?!) So I had no garlic either!
My first attempt therefore, while not being remotely similar in any way to what we’d had at the Taj Mahal, wasn’t bad… but far from a triumph. The next day, I read the ingredients lists of at least a dozen recipes online, then played around with spice blends until I got what I thought was probably right… but of course, I wouldn’t know for certain until I actually started cooking!
This time it was a triumph! Not exactly the same as the Taj Mahal’s but that’s cool because it gives me an excuse to keep ordering it there! Cunning, eh? Plus, no two cooks ever make identical dishes. However, amato mio loved it, as did I, but the real test was whether local people liked it. Sony volunteered, and got three other people to try it too! They all agreed that the aroma was great, and apart from needing a little more salt and chilli it was spot-on (people here prefer a lot of chilli and salt – certainly more than I’m used to!). This gave me a very, very big happy!
So here it is; I really hope you enjoy it, and please, do leave a comment because I really love reading your thoughts and opinions!
NOTE: If you can’t get kokum, you could probably use 1-2 tsp white or apple cider vinegar instead. I haven’t tried it yet but since the kokum is used to add a slightly sour edge to the dish, I suspect that vinegar would have a similar effect… but minus the fruitiness of the kokum (which I really like). Or, maybe use tamarind?? If you try it, do let me know how it works!
Nutritional values per serving:
(Please note that these are based on the ingredients I used – your own may be slightly different)
For two servings:
250g raw prawns – peeled, de-veined, and cleaned
2-3 pieces kokum –– finely-chopped
1 tbsp minced ginger (or 1 tsp ground, dried ginger)
5 fat cloves garlic – minced or finely-chopped
2 tsp red chilli powder (add more or less, according to taste)
½ tsp turmeric powder
3 tbsp coconut, chopped into small pieces (use desiccated if you can’t get fresh coconut)
Salt to taste
10 curry leaves
2 tbsp coconut oil
1cm piece cinnamon stick/cassia bark
200g onion – finely-sliced
50g shallots – finely-sliced
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
Soak the kokum, in just enough water to cover, for 30-45 minutes.
If you haven’t already done so, peel and de-vein the prawns.
Wash the prawns in cold water, then dry thoroughly on plenty of kitchen roll, or a clean tea-towel.
Once the kokum is ready, drain it (reserving the water), then in a bowl, mix it together with half of the ginger and garlic, the chilli, turmeric, coconut, a little salt, and 5-6 curry leaves. Add the prawns, and mix well – I like to use my hands for this! Marinade for half an hour or so. (As you can see, I used desiccated coconut; it was Sunday, and the greengrocer was closed – hence no fresh coconut!)
Add a little of the kokum water to the marinade and prawns, mix, then fry in a hot skillet, frying pan, or wok (I use a kadai) for a few minutes, making sure that the prawns do not over-cook. Add more water if necessary… but not too much – just enough to stop the prawns catching, and to form a little bit of sauce.
Remove from the pan, and set aside while you make the rest of the dish.
In the same pan, heat the coconut oil, and fry the cinnamon stick for a minute or so. Add the onion, and fry until it becomes translucent. Turn the heat down a little if the onion starts to brown too quickly.
Add the shallots, and the rest of the garlic, ginger, and curry leaves. (If you’re using vinegar instead of kokum, I’d say this would be a good time to add it!) Sauté for 5-10 minutes until the onion is soft. Add the coriander and garam masala, and cook for another minute – until that ‘raw spice’ smell has gone, and the oil begins to separate out.
Stir in the prawns; taste, and add more salt if necessary. Add a little more water if needed, and mix everything together, ensuring the prawns are all coated with masala. Turn the heat down to low for a few minutes, just to make sure the prawns are hot.
“Where is the teddy bear plate?” I hear you ask…. here – I just didn’t have an appropriate space to put it in the recipe!