You can tell, blindfolded, when Kerala prawn masala is on the menu. First, you smell the curry leaves, then the pepper or maybe the cinnamon, cloves or fennel seed and don’t forget the prawns. The aromas are so tightly intertwined, it’s hard to get the order right. Actually, the sequence is inconsequential. What is an undeniable is that, the pull of Kerala prawn masala is hard, (in my opinion, near impossible) to resist.
As the land that grows pepper, cardamom, cloves, vanilla, ginger, and as the ancient mecca of the spice trade , it is only natural for Kerala to celebrate its edible treasures. I think it is a blessed land that has such a bounty of precious spices on top of a fertile coastline teeming with fish. Nowhere else in India have I seen such a cornucopia of fresh catch – prawns, crabs, kingfish, seabass, mackerel, snapper, dorado, calamari, shellfish, sardines, pomfret and a many local fish whose English names I couldn’t tell you. I once ate a tasty fish that the fishmonger called rice fish because it came from the flooded rice paddies dotting the countryside.
So understandably, I am more than a little partial to cooking mainly seafood dishes from this region. And the Malayalis have mastered spice combinations that best enhance the flavours of seafood. In 20 years of being married to Malayali, I’ve eaten scores of fish dishes cooked in my mother in law’s kitchen and in eateries small and big, and yet my enthusiasm fails to wane.
Kerala prawn roast, chemmeen masala (as it is locally known) or Kerala prawn masala as I like to call it, enjoys great popularity in the state and you will find it on the menu of every restaurant that serves Malayali food worth its salt. Like chicken tikka masala, there are countless versions of prawn roast. Some, cook the shrimp in the masala and then deep fry them until crisp, others add vinegar and still others add coconut milk. I am yet to figure out which is the real McCoy and maybe it doesn’t matter because they are all so delicious.
My Kerala prawn masala recipe does not have vinegar or coconut milk and I refuse to deep fry my prawns because deep frying renders these perfectly succulent morsels tasteless dry and rubbery. What I like to do instead at the very end, when the prawns are cooked to a juicy succulence and are smothered in the spicy masala, is to raise the heat to high and very quickly fry them just for a minute or so. This helps the rice flour in the masala to crisp up a little while the prawns retain their texture. That said, as a rule, I never deep fry calamari or prawns without dunking them in some kind of a batter first.
Anyway, you’ll notice when you read the recipe that it has many levels and types of heat from ginger, black pepper, red chilli powder (cayenne), sliced green chillies and powdered cloves and cinnamon. Each registers on a different area of your tongue, mouth and throat. Honestly, there’s more than a moderate amount of heat here, but that’s the allure of this dish. So if you think it is more than what you’re used to, you can add a little coconut milk to sweeten it or leave out the fresh chillies or simply reduce the quantity of spices. Just don’t cut back too much because then it’s no longer prawn masala Kerala style. And, never be frugal with the curry leaves.
It is a fast cooking dish, best eaten fresh and piping hot with plain boiled rice and a dal or sambar or by itself as an appetiser to accompany ice-cold beers. The heat and the chill dance a close tango on the tongue, a pairing made in food heaven. Use medium to slightly big prawns so that they don’t drown in the masala (spice paste). Keep all the ingredients ready before you begin because almost all of them go in one after another in the beginning, before the prawns and you don’t want things to burn or overcook while you’re frantically chopping in the middle of cooking. I promise that your tongue, olfactory glands and brain are sure to surrender to Kerala prawn masala, just like mine did, all those years ago.
Kerala Prawn Masala
- 500 g prawns medium to large
- 2 onions, thinly sliced medium
- 1 inch ginger, sliced into thin matchsticks
- 6-8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 20-30 curry leaves, some chopped, some kept whole
- 3-4 fresh green chillies, each cut into 2 pieces bird's eye, serrano
- 1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp red chilli powder (cayenne)
- 1 tsp powdered cinnamon
- 2 tsp coriander powder
- 1/2 tsp powdered cloves
- 1 tsp ground fennel seed
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 2 tbsp rice flour
- Marinate the the cleaned and de-veined prawns in some salt, 1 tsp chilli powder, coriander powder and turmeric. Set aside for 5 minutes.
- Place a pan with coconut oil on medium heat and add the sliced onions. Saute for 2-3 minutes till the onions start to caramelize slightly.
- Now add the ginger, garlic and green chillies. Saute and cook for a further 3-4 minutes.
- Now tip in the prawns and chopped curry leaves and mix well with the onion masala. Continue to cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring intermittently. The prawns will release some moisture. Allow the water to dry so that the spice paste has a thick, coating consistency.
- Once the prawns are cooked and the masala coats them, check and correct the seasoning, add the ground pepper, cinnamon, clove and fennel seed. Mix well.
- Toss in the remaining whole curry leaves, sprinkle the rice powder over, mix thoroughly and quickly stir fry on a high flame for a minute. Turn off the heat and serve hot.