Updated: Oct 30, 2021
“Middleman to the ancient world, laced by forty-one rivers and a thousand canals, Kerala lies like a jewel fixed the southwestern coast of India, a 580 kilometre-long stretch."
Mrs K. M. Mathew (2002)
I first tasted this Keralan speciality at the Taj Varkala hotel not far from Trivandrum. The hotel was quite a new addition to the chain's properties and was very quiet. If I remember correctly, we had asked if some of the hotel chefs would like to put on a cooking demo/class, which they did, and I believe this was one of the dishes on the syllabus. A whole fish coated in a rich and fragrant masala paste, wrapped in banana leaves and either baked in the oven or roasted on a hot skillet.
The fish that would typically be used in Kerala is a karimeen which seems usually to be translated as "black pearl spot". We don't get that here but I think a whole black bream makes a splendid alternative, and with black bream still being line caught and available on the market stall for a few weeks more, now is the time to enjoy a dish such as this. Recipes for karimeen will often suggest using sea bass as an alternative in the UK. Much as I am a huge fan of fish with strong, but appropriate, spices, I do think using our native line-caught sea bass is possibly a touch extravagant given we have other excellent options. I would probably go for small whole grey mullet rather than sea bass in the absence of bream, but I'd rather see the recipe tried with sea bass than not tried at all!
Given the translation of meen pollichathu is "fish in a banana leaf", it comes as no surprise that the recipes you find for this dish vary quite considerably once the fish and the banana leaf components have been arranged. After looking at a variety of recipes I have settled on a combination of those in two books I brought back from my trip to Kerala (see references), as they were simpler than many out there and included a collection of favourite flavours. I have, however, simplified the cooking process a little further, but in a way as I feel does not detract from the essence of the dish. The frying of the fish at Step 3 I am suggesting as optional if it is preferable to remove one stage in the cooking process. It does result in a slightly more refined finished flavour, but if not done then the cooking time in the oven should be increased by 2-3 minutes to compensate. By the same token, if preferred, there is no reason why the recipe cannot be used to cook thick fillets of fish, as long as the cooking time is reduced accordingly.
All recipes I have found for this dish use coconut oil - feel free to do so, but personally I don't really like it. And most of the recipes don't include any coconut elements other than the oil. What I have done to impart the coconut flavour is to follow the guidance in my two references of using a small amount of coconut cream in the masala which allows me to cook without using coconut oil whilst retaining the contribution of coconut, essential in a Keralan dish.
The banana leaves are not essential and their absence should certainly not preclude the making of this dish. It is true to say that the banana leaves do impart a certain flavour - I would describe it as being somehow reminiscent of the aroma of tea - but I have cooked this dish using only foil and it is still knockout. If you do use banana leaves it is advisable to warm them gently in the oven to make them malleable (but not so long as they go brittle), and also to wrap the banana leaf parcel in another wrapping of foil to ensure the seal. Banana leaves are surprisingly easy to find in Asian grocers.
The only other ingredient that might be a little tricky to source is the curry leaves. I tend to buy a batch either from an Asian grocer or online and freeze them as they freeze extremely well and can be then used from frozen. I have put a couple of links below to online suppliers. However, if you don't have curry leaves or can't get hold of them, just omit them (I can't recommend using dried curry leaves), but that is no reason not to make this dish!
Ingredients (Serves 2)
Sunflower or vegetable oil
One 700-750g or two 400-450g whole black bream, trimmed and scaled and washed
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp ground black pepper
Salt, to taste
1 tsp coriander powder
½ tsp chilli powder (cayenne pepper)
½ tsp black mustard seeds
A few curry leaves (if available)
1 small shallot, finely sliced
2 or 3 green chillies (or to taste), slit down the length
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tomato, finely chopped
1 tsp vinegar (red wine, cider or white wine)
1½ tbsp coconut cream
Banana leaves and/or foil
Lime wedges to serve
Marinate the fish inside and out with ¼ tsp turmeric, ¼ tsp black pepper and salt to taste. Rub it in well and leave aside for 20 minutes or so. Combine the coriander, chilli and the remaining ¼ tsp turmeric and ¼ tsp salt in a small bowl with just enough water to create a paste. Set aside and preheat the oven to 220°C with the baking tray to be used inside.
Heat some oil in a frying pan. When hot add the black mustard seeds and, as soon as they start to pop, the curry leaves. Fry for a moment then add the sliced shallot and sauté over a medium heat until translucent. Add the chillies and the chopped garlic, fry gently for about 30 seconds then add the chopped tomato and the vinegar. Continue to cook for a few minutes until the tomatoes have largely broken down, then incorporate the coconut cream and allow to simmer over a medium heat until most of the moisture has evaporated. This will take about 5 minutes resulting in a thick masala paste which can be 'caked' onto the fish. Allow to cool until it can be handled.
If frying the fish (see recipe intro), heat some oil in a separate, wide frying pan. Fry the fish for a minute each side, just long enough to cook the marinade and start browning the skin. Remove the fish from the pan and leave until cool enough to handle.
Grease the banana leaves or foil with a little oil (the oil from frying the fish is ideal). Apply a thick layer of the masala paste to one side of the fish, pressing it in well, and lay the fish coated-side down on the banana leaf or foil. Then repeat with with masala paste on the other side of the fish.
Wrap the fish tightly in the banana leaf or foil (if using banana leaf it is advisable to wrap the packet with foil as well) and place on the baking tray. Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes if using two smaller fish, or 15 minutes for a larger fish (plus 2-3 minutes extra in both cases if the fish has not been briefly fried as at Step 3), remove from the oven for a couple of minutes to allow to cool, then serve with lime wedges.
"Flavours of the Spice Coast", Mrs K. M. Mathew (2002), pp. 25: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Flavours-Spice-Coast-K-M-Mathew/dp/0143029002
"101 Kerala Delicacies", G. Padma Vijay (1998), pp. 64: https://www.amazon.co.uk/101-Kerala-Delicacies-G-P-Vijay/dp/8171672787