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A prawn-and-coconut memorial to my Ajji

Some memories are raw and recent, others more distant and less distinct. Here is one resurrected and revived after many decades

Prawns in a dry coconut masala. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 26.02.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

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It has been two years since my father passed, about four decades since my grandmother passed. The memories of my father are very strong and quite raw. I find myself suddenly overcome with grief when I stumble across a photograph or see in my cupboard his ceremonial sword—ornately inscribed with the words “IPS", for Indian Police Service.

The sword was given to him when he was a probationer in training at the National Police Academy in Mount Abu, Rajasthan, in 1955. The sword was my 55th birthday gift, given to me by my parents a few months before his final hours. Someday, soon, it will be mounted on a wall in our living room, a reminder of his values and his memory.

Memories of my grandmother are more distant and less distinct. Time has erased the sadness I recall from those days, replaced by pleasant if fuzzy recollections of my time with her. My brother and I spent many years of our childhood sharing a room with her. My Ajji was petite, always dressed in her traditional nauvari—or nine yards—sari, which from the back looked very much like a fashionable version of quilot pants.

I remember Ajji sitting on her bed in the evenings, rocking slightly as she struggled to read her religious texts. I can’t remember what they were. She never went to school but was highly educated in the calm, affectionate way she approached life in general and her unruly grandchildren in particular.

Her legacy, the one I most remember at least, is her fish curry, a recipe that was passed on to me, possibly through an aunt. Time has erased the details. This recipe, as I have often written before, has been my culinary mainstay, my succour on grim days, a celebration of more languid ones.

I have made that fish curry to extract a discount on my bed and breakfast in Copenhagen, to warm up a freezing winter day in Delhi and ever so often, for no reason at all. I have modified it, making it less spicy for my daughter, for example, and deconstructed it when I was bored, and it is the one thing I can make with virtually no thought or preparation.

Nearly a decade ago, I went off my Ajji’s fish curry for a couple of years when they found a block in one of my arteries. As I understood my body more and realised you could live with a block and eat coconut, I went back to the curry, feeling great relief as I did.

Culinary memories, once resurrected, need to be refreshed ever so often. And that is what I did recently with my Ajji’s fish curry. I realised there was no real need to stick to the recipe in letter, so long as I kept to its spirit. The previous modifications I spoke of led to only minimal tinkering with its main ingredients—red chillies, turmeric, kokum (the souring agent), garlic and coconut milk or fresh coconut. Somehow, while I added on related spices, either whole or powered, it seemed sacrilegious to add on entirely new elements.

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One day this month, as Bengaluru’s wan winter was winding down, I felt a burst of creativity as spring poked its head around the corner and carpets of Tabebuia rosea blooms littered the roads. It began with sorrow, as I waded through my father’s financial papers, and as I did, I thought it really was time to think of more pleasant things, which is how I remembered his mother that day and that grand, old Goan fish curry.

Determined to rebuild it from the base up, I took inspiration from our cousins further south in Mangaluru, merging some aspects of a thick, dry coconut masala they use primarily with clams. I doubt my Ajji would have been impressed by the use of mustard seeds, coconut oil—à la Kerala—and curry leaves but they set the pattern for more experimentation.

I used prawn instead of fish and fried the dry(ish) masala far less than it perhaps is with clams. But the masala was red, rich and ever so fragrant. There was no better way to keep Ajji’s memory alive. My father, a great fan of his mother’s cooking, would have approved.

PRAWNS IN A DRY COCONUT MASALA

Serves 5

Ingredients

1kg prawns

1 tsp mustard seeds

2 tbsp curry leaves

1-2 tbsp coconut oil

3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

For the masala, grind

2 onions, finely chopped

8 Byadgi chillies (use Kashmiri chillies if you want less heat)

1 cup grated coconut

Half tsp turmeric powder

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp garam or fish masala of any kind (I used a Konkan fish masala)

1 tbsp thick tamarind paste

Salt to taste

Method

Grind all the ingredients for the masala to a rough paste, adding a little water if it becomes too dry, taking care to see that it remains rough.

In a large wok or pan, heat the coconut oil, add mustard seeds and curry leaves until they splutter. Add the masala and fry well for about 10 minutes. Add prawns and mix well for about five minutes or until they change colour. Remember prawns cook quickly and can become rubbery if overcooked. Switch off, mix again and transfer to a serving dish. Adjust salt. Sprinkle with coriander and serve hot. Best eaten with appam, rice or fresh bread.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.