My Grandmother’s Keralan Fish Cakes

fish cakesI don’t often post the recipes of my maternal grandmother, being as they are, gold. Gold because she is the biggest influence in my life and in the kitchen, and because she was the best cook ever.

This is one of my very favorites – a Keralan fish cake that she used to produce regularly through the year, and which, during the lavish Christmas feasts that she and my grandfather (both Roman Catholics) would host, would lure dozens of their adoring multiethnic neighbors to their home in West Malaysia.

Fish cakes, with dhal and rice[I pause here to offer you some facts about Kerala, home of my ancestors and birthplace of my grandparents. As part of the Indian diaspora a couple of generations removed from the 'motherland,' I have a soft spot for the state on India's southwestern coast, one of the greenest in the country, and riven with lakes, backwaters, beaches and a tropical landscape. Kerala has a literacy rate of 94 percent, which puts it at the top of that chart for Indian states in 2011 (92 percent of the literate were women, 96 percent, men); India's average literacy rate in 2011 was 74 percent. It also has the highest life expectancy rate in the country, and 1,000 women to every 923 men, making it an unusual matriarchal state in largely patriarchal India.

Though I love these statistics, more relevant to my foodie heart is the fact that Kerala was a major spice exporter to the world, from 3,000 BC onward. It's a major grower of rice, as well as tea, coffee, cashews, coconut and of course, spices—including pepper, cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg (all of which I consume and cook with regularly).

My Keralan forefathers include Portuguese, Syrian Jews and Syrian Christians. With such a progressive family, it was only natural for me to widen its gene pool further with my marriage to Him Indoors, a British Jew ;) ]

IMG_0233Now, on to the fish cakes. These are a specialty of the Malayalees (the folks who live in Kerala), and my grandmother’s version gets its particular moreishness from cumin, green chili and ginger. Being an adventurous sort, I have tweaked this recipe many times but found nothing as tasty as the original.

For those watching their waistline, I’d beg you to have someone else watch it today, as these fish cakes are best fried (in olive or veg oil) – that extra crunch adds to its overall yumminess. Just think of them as allowing you to meet your olive oil requirements for the next couple of days.

The whole process may seem fiddly, but you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts!

Tip: Alternatively, you may bake these in a preheated 420F oven for about 20 minutes or till golden brown, spritzing them first on the top with some Pam olive or veg oil spray.

Tip 2: To quick-cook the potatoes, sling them in your microwave on the Sensor Cook setting for Potatoes (mine is no. 8). When they’re done, peel and mash as per normal.

Tip 3: While the fish and potatoes are cooking, prepare your side dish, like this veggie dhal above (recipe to come) and bung rice into your rice cooker.

Tip 4: If you don’t have a rice cooker, buy one! One is not meant to slave over a pot of rice.

  • white-fleshed fish fillets, about 4 (tilapia or flounder or cod, sole or pollock. Salmon isn’t white but works, too)
  • garam masala for the fish, 1 tsp
  • potatoes, 4, boiled, peeled, mashed
  • onions, 2-4, chopped
  • chilli, green, chopped
  • ginger, 1/2-inch piece, chopped
  • garlic, 1-2 tsp, chopped
  • cumin, 3/4 tsp, ground
  1. It’s a three-pronged approach to making these babies. First, cook and mash the potatoes. Season.
  2. While the potatoes are cooking, bake the fish. Spread the garam masala and some salt, like a dry rub, onto the fish fillets. Spritz with Pam oil spray or drizzle with olive oil and bake in a preheated 420F oven for about 20 mins. Flake with a fork.
  3. Then, get the onion mix ready. In a food processor, bung the onions, garlic, ginger, chili, and whiz till chopped evenly. Saute till fragrant and the onion has softened.
  4. Mix all three together, the flaked fish, mashed spuds, and sauteed onion mixture.
  5. In a second bowl, whisk two eggs
  6. In a third, have some breadcrumbs ready (I toasted some wholewheat bread and crumbed them in my processor)
  7. Form the fish mixture into a ball, and shape gently into a patty. Dip into the egg, then the breadcrumbs.
  8. Heat up some olive oil in a pan
  9. When the oil is ready (test by throwing a crumb into it. It should sizzle), gently place a few fish cakes in it. Cook about 2 minutes a side or till golden brown and drain on kitchen paper.
  10. Serve warm, with rice and dhal (recipe to come).

Enjoy. And don’t forget to credit my Gran!

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January 30, 2013. Tags: , , , , . Asian, Festive, Fish, Indian, Mains.

8 Comments

  1. ladki replied:

    Oh my, these look AMAZING! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m gonna try to make this the next time I have my fish-loving Bengali friends and relatives over. I always thought my mom made the best fish cutlet/chops (with tuna) but now I’ll have to try your granny’s recipe to compare :-)

    • divaindoors replied:

      You are so sweet, Ladki :) No need to compare. I’m sure your mum’s fish cutlets are deelish too and look forward to making them (did you already post?).

  2. Jennifer Lim replied:

    You are such a star in the kitchen! I did not inherit my mom’s culinary skill and in those days there is no recipes to talk about. Besides, mom is unschooled. Don’t lose your recipes! I have resorted to search for the genuine Hakka recipes on the web!

  3. My Daily Denmark replied:

    I must try to make these delicious looking fish cakes. :-)

    • divaindoors replied:

      Hope you can find the spices you need in Denmark. Thanks for dropping by! :)

      • My Daily Denmark replied:

        The only thing I miss is the Garam masala, but I found this recipe. Is it correct?
        2 tablespoons cumin seeds, whole seeds
        1 tablespoon whole black perberkorn
        1 tablespoon cinnamon, ground
        1 tbsp coriander, whole seeds
        8 pcs cardamom, capsules
        5-10 cloves
        2-3 bay leaves

  4. divaindoors replied:

    Ah, the garam masala recipe isn’t set in stone, and there may be a few around, though that sounds pretty much like it. However, for the fish cakes, you only need cumin (and garam masala is just a substitute in case one doesn’t have the cumin on hand). Hope that helps and look forward to your report back if you do try this out :)

  5. Jo replied:

    Hi Diva, I can’t wait to make your delicious fish cutlets for my family in Munich. Will Salmon be great for a substitute? Thanks for sharing your grandma’s recipe.

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