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Shrimp: an ingredient in the centre of a melting pot of cultures

Although shrimp consumption is not as popular in India as fish, its mention can be observed in Tamil literature and in the Manasollasa written by King Someshvara III of the Western Chalukya Dynasty in 13th century AD (see bibliography). It is, therefore, safe to assume that shrimp consumption has a long and extensive history, particularly in South India. However, it is in Bengal that shrimp tells the tale of an ingredient caught in the centre of a melting pot of cultures. Probably already popular in consumption, shrimp became an English favourite early on. In the 19th century, Lt. Colonel James Skinner of the 1st Bengal Cavalry devised a shrimp recipe that was first served in the Army Regiment Mess. Ever since, shrimp curry or snacks are an indispensable item on the menu of countless Army Messes across the country. The shrimp also became a quintessential ingredient of jalfrezi (derived from the Bengali “jhal” meaning spicy and “phorezi” meaning suitable for a diet), a technique of cooking borrowed from the Chinese who began a settlement in Bengal around the same time. Shrimp probably has its own story in every part of the country. What remains consistent is its delicacy in every preparation like the South Indian prawn curry recipe below.

South Indian Prawn Curry by Priscilla Roxburgh

“Growing up close to the sea, fish and prawn dishes made fairly frequent appearances on our dinner table and were appreciated by everyone – especially my mum’s prawn curry. But her’s didn’t have much gravy and had a simple onion-tomato base that rendered it slightly sweet because of the number of tomatoes. One thing was certain – there were never any leftovers that day. When I got married and moved to another country, despite getting the recipe or trying to recreate it from my taste memory, it was never the same. So I gave up and thought of the different prawn curries I’ve enjoyed over the years and made something with ideas borrowed from here and there. I think the coconut milk addition is from Kerala while the tamarind addition is from Tamil Nadu. Who knows? All I know is that there are rarely leftovers here as well and that’s the main thing”

List of ingredients

For: 3-4 people
Time: 30 minutes

250 gm Prawns (cleaned and deveined)
1 large Onion (roughly chopped)
2 medium-sized Tomatoes (roughly chopped)
¼ teaspoon + ¼ teaspoon Turmeric
½ teaspoon + 2 teaspoon Chilli powder
2 teaspoon Ginger-garlic paste
1 tablespoon Coriander powder
¼ teaspoon Pepper powder
1 teaspoon Tamarind paste (or as per your taste)
½ teaspoon Mustard seeds
1 dried Red chilli (broken)
¼ teaspoon Fenugreek seeds
200 ml Coconut milk
2 tablespoon Coconut oil


Marinate the prawns in ¼ teaspoon turmeric and ½ teaspoon chilli powder and salt and set aside.

In a saucepan or kadhai, heat the oil and once hot, add the mustard seeds till it starts spluttering, add the dried red chilli and fenugreek seeds and sauté for a couple of minutes.

Add the chopped onion, fry till golden brown and then add the ginger-garlic paste and little salt.

Put the flame on medium-low and add the rest of the turmeric and chilli powder and also the coriander and pepper powder, stir well till their raw smell is gone. This usually takes 1 to 2 minutes.

Next add the chopped tomatoes and cook till the oil starts to separate around the edges. Around 5 minutes.

Stir in half a cup of water and turn off the flame.

Once the temperature has come down a bit, use a hand blender or transfer the contents of the kadhai to a mixie and blend till smooth.

Put the gravy back in the kadhai and turn the flame to a minimum and allow it to sit for a couple of minutes.

Next add the tamarind and coconut milk. Check the taste. You can add more tamarind if you like it slightly more sour or increase the coconut milk quantity if too spicy.

Add the prawns and allow it to cook for not more that 7-8 minutes till the middle of the prawn is fully cooked, but not over cooked.

Serve with plain rice or rotis.