The cuisine of Kerala may be one of the most interesting in South India—if only because it gets so little of the recognition it properly deserves. It’s become relatively easy to find dosas, idlis, and even vadas at Indian restaurants in the West, but it’s rare to find a place that makes the food from Kerala well—even in India. It’s a rich and storied cuisine, incredibly regional and marked by migrations, trade, and the distinctive climate and geography of the area.
Though my father spent most of his childhood in Africa, his family was originally from a small village in Kerala, located on the west coast of India—one of the two southernmost states in the country. The coastal climate and its tropical position make Kerala a veritable greenhouse for all manner of lush and avid vegetation. Some of my fondest memories of visiting my grandparents in Kerala, long after they’d returned from Africa, are of running around the tharavad, the low-slung family home, nestled in a damp, overgrown corner of the small village of Kumarakom, bordered on all sides by idling canals filled with blooming water hyacinth and great sentinel rows of coconut trees.
The prevalence of all this tropical vegetation has an obvious effect on the cuisine of Kerala, which makes abundant and ingenious use of all manner of fruits and vegetables. Tapioca roots are pared clean of their wood-paneling skin and steamed to pillowy softness before being served with a fiery, coconut-sweet chamanthi made with pounded shallots, green chillies, tamarind, and coconut oil. Curries rich with coconut milk or dark with spices like black pepper and ginger are rampant—and exquisite.
This particular recipe is one that I didn’t eat growing up. It comes, instead, from Jhancy Cherian, a close family friend, who is a wonderful cook and who keeps me steadily supplied with new recipes and who, when I visit my parents (and much to my delight) frequently calls over the boundary wall that divides her house from my parents’ to give me a taste of some delicious dish that she’s preparing, or to show me some unusual and unaccustomed ingredient. It could be a tender artichoke-like heart of freshly steamed green jackfruit, a morsel of freshly fried eggplant, golden and crisp and custard-like within, or a simple bowl of cheere—a mix of greens briefly sautéed with spices and flecks of freshly ground coconut.
This dish, of green mango braised with spices, onions, and coconut milk, is a marvelous combination of flavors and textures. A green mango, if you’ve never had one before, is just an unripe mango. Its flesh is a pale white, tinged with the faintest hint of green, and it is firm and tart, unlike a ripe mango which is aromatic, soft, and golden yellow.
The distinctive flavor and texture of the green mango make it ideal for a multitude of uses—chutneys, drinks, chamanthis, and more. But this curry is one of my favorites because of its complexity and how deeply satisfying it is. The coconut milk gives it a marvelous richness, but the green mango gives it a brisk acidity that perks it up and keeps it from being cloying. Serve it alongside a bowl of freshly cooked rice and a big heaping pile of freshly fried papadam. If you can find the thin, unflavored Kerala-style papadams in your local Indian grocery store, all the better for you. They puff up into crisp and incredibly satisfying balloons when you fry them, absolutely perfect when crushed over a bowl of pachamaanga curry and rice. If you’re not lucky enough to have easy access to Kerala papadams, you could try your hand at making them yourself, if you’re ambitious (Link in Malayalam). Or, save yourself the extra work and just top your pachamaanga curry with some spicy store-bought potato chips! It may not be traditional but it’s delicious all the same!
A note on green mango: I highly recommend seeking out green mangoes if you plan on making this recipe. Ripe mangoes will just break down when you cook them, and are much too sweet here, besides. You can find green mangoes at most Indian grocers as well as at many Thai and Indonesian grocery stores. Look for mangoes that are firm, and a deep, dark green color.
Pachamaanga Curry | Braised Green Mango with Coconut Milk
2 green mangoes
½ medium onion, peeled, trimmed, and sliced thinly through the root
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely minced
2 birds-eye or Serrano chillies, slit on one side
3 tsp moderately spicy chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
6 tsp coriander seed, lightly toasted and ground
3 cups coconut milk
Salt to taste
2 tsp coconut oil
2 tsp black mustard seeds
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
3–4 large shallots, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced
2–3 medium-hot dry red chillies
The stripped leaves from two curry leaf stems
Wash and peel the green mango. Using a sharp knife, cut around the seed, which you can discard.
Cut the peeled mango into thick matchsticks about 2 inches by 1/8 inch.
In a large stainless steel bowl, mix together the sliced onions, slit green chillies, minced ginger, 2 tsp coconut oil, and salt. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.
Next, add the green mango and spices to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Set aside once again, this time for 15 minutes, to allow the spices to really permeate the mango and to allow the salt to work its magic.
Heat 2 tsp coconut oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Preferably use a pan made from a nonreactive material, like stainless steel or enameled cast iron. If you have a clay pot, this is the perfect opportunity to use it.
When the oil begins to shimmer, add the green mango mixture to the pan and toss with a wooden spoon for 2–3 minutes, until well-coated with the oil.
Add 2 cups of the coconut milk to the pan, lower the heat to medium and partially cover the pan with a lid.
Allow to cook for at least 20–30 minutes, or until the mango is translucent and can easily be crushed with the back of your stirring spoon against the side of the pan. The mixture should be bubbling steadily but should not be at a rolling boil. When the mango is cooked through the gravy should also have thickened considerably and you should be able to see the coconut oil pooled in spots on top of the pan.
Taste again and add salt as needed as well as the additional coconut milk to thin out the gravy a little bit.
In a shallow sauté pan, heat 2 tsp of coconut oil until it begins to shimmer.
Add the black mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds. When the mustard begins to pop and the fenugreek seeds become aromatic, add the curry leaves and dried red chillies and stand back—the oil will sputter impressively when the leaves come in contact with it.
Stir briefly to coat the leaves thoroughly with oil, then add the sliced shallots to the pan. Stir-fry for 5–6 minutes or until the shallots are well-browned.
Tip the seasoned oil and all the shallots, mustard seeds and other spices into the pan with the cooked mango curry.
Stir to combine. Taste one last time for seasoning. Add salt as needed as well as jaggery if you feel the dish needs a touch of sweetness to counter the tartness of the mango.
Eat with steaming hot rice and a mountain of freshly fried, crisp papadam.