Malabar prawn curry (Malabar shrimp curry) is a deliciously flavorful Indian seafood dish. It's on the less spicy side but with lots of wonderful aromatics, tangy tamarind and smooth, creamy coconut. And as a bonus, this tasty meal is quick to make too.
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Indian cuisine is probably one of the first I discovered and explored that bit more, between it both being more available than most where I grew up in the UK and also due to family connections. Of course, Indian food overseas does not always fully represent Indian cuisine in India, and some dishes are in fact only found overseas.
Dig a little deeper and there are so many more wonderful dishes to discover. India is well known for having varied region cuisine and this is a perfect example.
Where is Malabar prawn curry from?
Malabar prawn curry (or shrimp curry, as it would be called in the US) is from Kerala on the South West coast of India. The name "Malabar" has been used over many centuries to refer to the area of Kerala or the entire Southwest region, then was an administrative region of Northern Kerala during British rule.
Malabar cuisine, also known as Mopla locally, is a style of cuisine that has emerged in the region, distinct from other traditional Keralan cooking.
History and influences on Malabar cuisine
Malabar cuisine is a style that reflects the history of the region which has been a major stop for traders on spice trading routes for centuries. Goa, further north, has particular influence from Portuguese settlers (as talked about in my Goan fish curry), but there are also other influences here.
Malabar cuisine is generally considered to be a blend of traditional Keralan cooking with influences from Persian, Arab and Yemeni cuisines. The spicy curries enjoyed by locals were adapted to foreign visitor tastes, and incorporated aspects of their cooking. Malabar biryani, for example, has strong Yemeni influences.
Many dishes include coconut, which is widely used in the region in general. In this style, you more typically use it as part of a gravy/sauce rather than incorporating grated coconut in the dish, as you find in other Keralan dishes like beans thoran and pumpkin erissery. Malabar dishes generally use milder spices, with cardamon, black pepper and clove being popular, as well as less ghee or oil.
This curry, also called Chemmeen Mulakitathu, is a classic reflection of these influences, using local seafood, a range of spices and other ingredients for a balance of spicy, tart, creamy, sweet and aromatic all at once.
Ingredients in this prawn/shrimp curry
As with many Indian dishes, it might look like a long list of ingredients, but don't be put off. While a couple ingredients may be less familiar, all are widely available in an Indian supermarket:
- Shrimp/prawns - known as shrimp in the US, prawns in the UK. Call them as you prefer, they are tasty and the core of this dish. Larger shrimp work best, if available.
- Coconut - here I use coconut milk, which is nowadays the most typical. Some traditional versions start with fresh coconut for this, but then in effect make fresh coconut milk. So for ease and availability, using canned milk makes sense. Try to get a good quality, rich coconut milk for this to help give a thick sauce.
- Onion/shallot - A classic base ingredient in most curries. Shallot is more traditional here as they are a little milder and sweeter, but a sweet onion also works well. Make sure you give it time to cook down and become nicely soft, sweet and aromatic.
- Garlic, ginger and green chili - these are also classic base ingredients to add aromatic flavor. Some prefer to make a paste with these ingredients and the dried spice powders. Feel free to do this, or just chop each, as I do here.
- Curry leaves - curry leaves are typical in South Indian cooking as a way to add flavor. You frequently add them at the start of cooking, as here, to impart their slightly bitter, fragrant flavor as you cook.
- Other dried spices - whole black mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds also add aromatic flavor at the start. Then you add other ground spices later on to build up the flavors. Here I have used Kashmiri chili powder, which is a mild red chili, turmeric and coriander.
- Tamarind - this is another popular ingredient in South Indian cooking, particularly seafood dishes. It has a slightly tart, citrus-like flavor. If you can, make your own paste from a block of dried tamarind or using fresh pods. Using concentrate can work, but you will need less and it can be a little more tart. I'd suggest adding a little then try it to check.
Top tip: cooking with coconut milk
Coconut milk can be slightly tricky to cook with as it can both separate in the can, and when you cook. To make sure it is as rich and creamy as possible in your dish, start with a good quality coconut milk. Don't use "lite" coconut milk as it won't give the thickness you are looking for. Shake the can before opening in case it has separated.
Reduce the heat once you add the coconut milk. While you can cook the other ingredients over a slightly higher heat, once you add the coconut milk, you want to turn down the heat to help avoid any separation. Just let the sauce simmer gently to let the flavors mingle together.
Other tips for preparing this dish
This dish is overall pretty easy, but a couple points to help it turn out well:
- Be prepared! This cooks pretty quickly, so get everything ready before you start the actual cooking. Start by peeling and de-veining the shrimp, if needed. You can then chop the onion etc as the shrimp marinate, and get your spices ready to go, too.
- Don't overcook the shrimp - this is probably one of the easiest ways to spoil the dish. Shrimp doesn't need a lot of cooking, you are just looking for it to change to a pink color and become opaque. A quick sear at the start, then adding briefly at the end helps give juicy, perfectly cooked shrimp. The sear is not a must - you can just add at the end. However searing (and the marinade) help give a great color.
How to serve this dish
You typically serve this curry with rice or you could also serve with parathas, naan or appam (rice pancakes). Since it has a lovely sauce to it, you want to make sure you have something to mop up all that wonderful flavor!
If you are cooking rice, I'd recommend making sure you get it started before you start cooking the shrimp to make sure it is ready in time. It's better to keep the rice gently warm than have this dish waiting too long.
This Malabar prawn curry/shrimp curry is a wonderful feast for the senses - aromatic flavors, creaminess, a little tangy and a little sweet. All so delicious, and easy, too. It'll soon be on your regular go-to list.
Try these other Indian favorites:
- Cauliflower pakora (a tasty, crispy snack, perfect for dipping)
- Tandoori shrimp (super quick, easy and great as an appetizer)
- Paneer makhani (a rich, creamy tomato-based vegetarian curry)
- Peshwari naan (a delicious soft nut and fruit-filled bread)
- Plus get more Indian recipes and seafood recipes in the archives.
Malabar prawn curry (Malabar shrimp)
To marinade shrimp
- ½ lb shrimp prawns, raw (suggest large, peeled weight)
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 pinch salt
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
For rest of dish
- ½ small onion
- 2 cloves garlic (2 cloves giving approx 1 tablespoon chopped)
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger
- 1 green chili medium heat
- ½ tomato
- 1 tablespoon oil eg vegetable, canola (approx, for frying)
- 8 curry leaves approx (1 small stem)
- ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- ¼ teaspoon black mustard seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon kashmiri chili powder (kashmiri is a mild, very red chili)
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ½ cup coconut milk (not light, but thick)
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste or more if mild, less is using concentrate
- Peel and devein shrimp/prawns, if not already prepared. Place shrimp in a small bowl and sprinkle over the turmeric, salt and lemon juice. Stir to coat evenly then set aside for around 10 minutes to marinate while you prepare other ingredients.
- Finley chop the onion, garlic, ginger and chili. Remove skin from the tomato and chop.
- When ready to cook, warm around half of the oil in a skillet/frying pan, wok or wide pot/pan over medium heat. Add the shrimp and cook to sear on both sides around 2 - 3 minutes each side. You don't need them fully cooked but they should turn a bright color on either side as the grey turns to pink. Remove from skillet and set aside.
- Add the rest of oil then add the curry leaves, fenugreek and mustard seeds. Cook for a couple minutes, stirring occasionally, until the seeds start to splutter.
- Add the onion and cook around 5 - 7 minutes so that it becomes well softened. Add a little additional oil if needed so that the onion doesn't burn. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook a couple minutes more so that they become fragrant and softened. Stir relatively regularly as they cook.
- Add the dried spices - coriander, kashmiri chili and turmeric - and mix them through well. After a minute or two add the tomato, stir to soften and cook briefly, then add the coconut milk. Stir to mix well and scrape any spices that have stuck to the bottom (it's all tasty flavor, though don't scrape if it has burnt which hopefully is not the case. Browned is fine.).
- Bring the coconut base to a simmer and add the tamarind, stir through, then add back the shrimp. Cook for a minute or two so that the shrimp are cooked through, but take care not to over cook, then serve eg with rice, paratha or naan.
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