Of Milk Rice and Fish Heads from Parliament Street

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Kiribath is such an amazing treat. Just add extra water in some good rice and cook it well and add a little light coconut milk with enough salt to taste. Cook it down until it is a happy mush with the grains somewhat still in tact and spread it out on a plate like a cake and cool it. Cut it into pieces and bob’s your uncle.

I’ve eaten ridiculous quantities of Christmas cake that kiribath was certainly not on the agenda though a lot of people seem to think not to make kiribath on January 1st is really pushing your luck. But heck my waistline is in great peril. Still. I’d been pining through all the Christmas cooking which incidentally is not really Sri Lankan but more western oriented, yes pining for a good spicy fish head dish. A Portuguese fish head soup may be or a Korean fish head soup or an impromptu something or the other with lotsa spice. In some places in the world fish head is a delicacy because that is where the flesh is the sweetest. It is true. If you don’t know that then sorry I guess you need to try it or else forever hold your tongue.

Kiribath in some Sinhala homes are made on the 1st of every month for good luck. It is made on New Years and on special days. Again for good luck. At exam time many mothers make kiribath before one marches out to slaughter at the O Levels or A Levels. So much luck bags of it I really don’t know what people do with all the luck they harvest making all that kiribath. Sometimes Amma made too much. And she’d plonk it on the table with the rest of the food; usually just curries those days. But always welcome. Kiribath. Usually kiribath is not eaten with a curry but with Jaggery (sweet palm sugar) or a hot relish type condiment– Lunu Miris. Never with gravy etc. But if there were leftovers they got served up as if it were regular rice. Except it is not regular rice because it has coconut milk in it and it is not loose like just rice but more like a rice cake. Kiribath with fish curry from those unusual times when there was an excess of kiribath; and fish cooked in a spicy coconut milk sauce with Kiribath is an amazing combination. Not that it is on the menu when the kiribath is first made but it is just offered with whatever meat or fish curry that is left over in the kitchen.

This is from long ago and my mom has not made kiribath for me since the late 70s except on the odd visits after I left home.  And she’s now long left this earth.  But I remember the taste of it all. I’ve been pining for this in the back of my mind. I had purchased a few fish heads by feigned accident from Ambal Trading when I went down there to pick up something else on the 30th. Curry leaves. You know how it is. One thing leads to another and god knows where one ends up.

Usually when you make a fish curry you end up with the gravy going all watery which is a huge drag. So I tried a few tricks and it worked so that the gravy was thick thick thick and heavier than whipping cream.  And the lemon rind at the end was not something my mom did.  Nor did she do the fry up which I think is more a Kerala style and ditto with the sambar powder.   Main thing is to keep the gravy from getting watery and not to overcook the fish remembering these are fish with bones. The fact that it is made of fish heads adds ridiculous amounts of flavour and you get to suck on the bones and even chew the juices out of them. You know what they say. You are never lonely when eating spaghetti. But try fish head curry. Lonely. No chance.

The fish heads cost me $4.50 at Ambal Trading which is ridiculously cheap. And even better. Kiribath and spicy fish head curry go together with cava like a horse and carriage. For left over bubbly from 31st night. Happy all round.  It all turned out slightly different from what mom made but divine nevertheless.  Make some.

You need:
About 4lbs of Seer (King Fish) fish head with gills discarded and head cut into about 1 inch pieces. Do not throw anything. (The fish monger will do this for you).
The cream of a can of good coconut milk. (Chill for about an hour and without shaking open the can and carefully spoon the cream and put into a separate container. You can use the watery residue in something else).
One small onion sliced.
Three or four green chillies sliced.
Four large garlic cloves. (2 sliced and 2 grated).
1 inch piece ginger (half finely minced and the rest grated).
Four sprigs fresh curry leaves.
1 or 2 teaspoons black Mustard seeds
3 tablespoons cooking oil
One cardamom pod bashed
2 x 1″ pieces of Ceylon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon Paprika
1 heaping teaspoon turmeric
About 3 or 4 red dry chillies roughly banged up in a mortar and pestle so they are in rough flake-like pieces (it’s ok if the seeds are whole)
About a teaspoon or two of fresh rough ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sambar powder (get from Tamil shop)
Fenugreek seeds (1/4 teaspoon)
Salt to taste
Three pieces goraka (get it from Tamil shops or Sri Lankan on line grocers)
Juice of one lemon including the rind of a lemon freshly grated. (grate at end straight into the curry)

Thoroughly wash goraka (careful sometimes it has sand on it) and put in about a cup of boiling water and bring to a medium simmer and cook for about 30 – 45 minutes watching so as not to let it dry out. Idea is to simmer so the flavour gets out into the water and you end up with about ½ cup of sour water.

Thoroughly rinse the cut up fish. (Be careful don’t cut yourself on the bony bits and sharp ends. Some of teeth can be sharp). Drain well and if you can even dry it with paper towels carefully. Place in a very large bowl. Add the turmeric, paprika, black pepper and dry chilli pieces to the fish with salt. Add the grated ginger and garlic and half fenugreek seeds. Toss with a spoon or spatula gently to cover most of the fish. Cover with plastic and keep in fridge about 30 minutes.

Gather the stuff for the temperado (fry up):
Half the curry leaves. Half the onions. Fenugreek seeds. Sliced garlic and minced ginger. One piece cinnamon. Sambar powder and mustard seed.

All the remaining ingredients except for lemon and coconut milk should be put into another small bowl as it will go in after the fry up.

In a large sauce pan heat the oil and when hot fry the mustard seeds. They will pop. Use a splatter shield or it could burn you. Add the rest of the fry up ingredients and once the onions are near brown turn off fire and remove pan from heat. Add the sambar powder and quickly stir for about 10 seconds until fragrant.  Place back on medium heat and add half of the fish and gently stir so it get’s singed a little. Add the rest of the fish and do the same. Now add the remaining ingredients except for lemon and coconut milk. Also add the goraka water and the goraka pieces. Make sure the fresh ingredients (like onion etc.) are below the fish pieces. Now add about a cup of the thick coconut milk. No need to mix. It will not cover the fish but the fish will render liquid as it cooks and mingle.

Cover and on medium to high heat bring to a near boil then reduce to allow fish to render liquid and it will then mix with the coconut milk and the liquid should come to nearly the top of the fish. Gently shake and mix from time to time and cook for about 15-20 minutes on a high simmer. Taste for salt. Make sure the fish cooks gently all the time no higher than a high simmer otherwise it may get too mushy if the fish breaks up too much.  Remember too much friction is the enemy of fish most days.

Important to remember that it is the thick coconut cream that prevents the gravy becoming too watery.  Also remember not to overcook the fish but just right so the bones are just cooked through.

At the end grate the rind of a lemon into the gravy and add the lemon juice. Taste for seasoning for salt and lemon/sour. The sauce will be very thick. Slightly thicker than whipping cream. Serve with Kiribath. How to make kiribath? Well it is all over the internet. Go check.

Happy New Year!

By the way:
Choice of fish. Grouper head and red snapper head is great for this too. But make sure the scales on the head are totally removed by the fish monger before cutting it. The cut up head goes into the curry skin and all. But no one wants fish scales in their curry. No sirree.

Heat: This may be spicy for some so feel free to vary the pepper and chillies. But the whole point in the dish is that it is hot and tangy.  If you love it hot add your hottest freshest deadliest chillies as much as you can take instead of the quantities mentioned in ingredients.  It will be sublime.  (This is a big secret and enjoy the heat.)

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