The moment I entered the restaurant, the smell of food and positive energy radiated all around. Glancing behind, I noticed Sudeep, the young and handsome general manager for the first time. From the Badaga community in the Nilgiris, he was not only a great cook like his wife, but researched a lot on heritage food. He showed me pictures of paintings by his eight-year-old son, by which I was very impressed. Any creative art is a rare gift, and the artists I was meeting were not only very talented, but also loved good, creative food. I decided to order a Badaga community’s dish. Many lost dishes are being revived by heritage food enthusiasts like Sudeep and I. Chef Subash was quick to understand what exactly I wanted and decided to cook it.
The blue mountains have been home to a vast cross culture of people, different communities like the Todas and Badagas. Until the tea plantations were started and the British made the region into one of the summer resort capitals and a home for military officers’ training, it remained a peaceful land with untouched forests, lush and rich with locals growing millets, vegetables, fruits and spices like cardamom and pepper. Samai ragi, barley, wheat and vatham were also grown before the British came in, and English vegetables like carrots, beans, beets, etc., started being cultivated. And, before the British-owned tea and coffee plantations were developed, the dominant landholders were said to have been the Badagas, who are supposed to have lived in the Nilgiris since thousands of years ago. Though their language spoken, also called Badaga, is very close to Kannada, it is a mixture of almost all Dravidian languages and yet unique. Badagas are said to be land owners in almost all taluks of the district, making land a major resource among the members of the community. All this and more was what I had learnt from Sudeep, besides the community’s famous dishes and eating habits.
He explained that millets were very popular and the community cooked it traditionally in a mud pot known as madake over a fireplace. Some of the special dishes include thuppadittu and ottu kudi curry, avaray with gaasu udhakka (beans with potato curry), Badagaru koi udaka (Badaga chicken curry), Kodaga udaka maasu hudi (fish fry) and thuppadhittu (enne hittu), a sweet dish.
My friends were looking forward to the fish curry and the fried fish, and seeing them devour it was proof enough of its taste. The dish must be tried by all fish lovers.
Badaga meenu udaka maasu hudi (Masala fried fish)
Prep time: 10 min
Cooking time: 15 min
Calories: 240 per piece
Seer fish/mackerel/black pomfret or sea bass fillets: 1 ½ kilos (16 pieces)
Coconut oil: ½ cup
Lime juice: 1 tbsp
Turmeric: 1 tsp
Asafoetida: 1 tsp
Ginger paste: 1 tbsp
Garlic paste: 1 tbsp
Coriander leaves: 1 small bunch
Mint leaves: 10-15 | Ginger: 1-inch piece
Garlic: 8 pods
Green chillies: 5
Red chillies: 2
Badaga maasu hudi powder: 1 ½ tbsp
For the Badaga maasu hudi powder
Chillies: 1 tbsp
Coriander seeds: 1 tbsp
Cumin seeds: 20 gm
Fennel seeds: 20 gm
Pepper: 25 gm
Roasted Bengal gram: 1 tbsp
Bengal gram: 1 tbsp
Red gram: 1 tbsp
Raw rice: 1 tsp
Turmeric: 5 gm
Fenugreek: 10 gm
Khus-khus: 5 gm
Mustard seeds: 5 gm
Clove: 5 gm
Cinnamon: 5 gm
Cardamom: 5 gm
Asafoetida: 1 tsp
Curry leaves: ½ tsp
Nutmeg: ½ tsp
Mace: ½ tsp
Black cardamom: ½ tsp
Slow roast all the ingredients required for the Badagu maasu hudi powder, which is a special curry powder that is prepared. Mix all the ingredients together and pound it in a blender. Use it fresh and cool down to store.
Grind the coriander, mint, ginger, garlic, green chillies and red chillies with a spoonful of oil.
Marinate the fish pieces with 3/4th of the green marinade paste, half of the maasu hudi powder, salt, lime juice and keep in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Now take a heavy bottomed shallow frying pan, keep on low heat, and add oil. Add in the remaining marinade, hudi powder and keep stirring for a minute, until the raw aroma goes.
Now slowly place the marinated fish pieces on the pan and fry for 2-3 minutes on one side. Turn the fish fillets to the other side and add the rest of the paste on all sides of the fish and let it fry for 3-5 more minutes till the fish is well-cooked and flaky.
Serve the fried fish fillets hot with chopped small onions or grated red onions and lime.
- To test whether the fish is fresh, press the skin with your finger. If the pressed area comes back, it is fresh
- Fish should always be cleaned and stored with a little salt and lemon juice as soon as it is bought to avoid going bad and smelling
- Store in an airtight container so that the rest of the fridge does not smell of fish
— Chef Ramaa Shanker is the
author of ‘Festive Offerings to the Gods: Divine Soul Recipes’