When one thinks of strength, the first thing that comes to mind is muscles. However, for many women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, it is mussels that give them strength. Green mussels or perna viridis, to be exact. Back in the 1990s, local villages along the Indian Ocean coastline began to start farming mussels as a way to make a living. Mussel farming exploded in the region and, overall, India rose to become one of the largest producers of green mussels in the world.
The most important thing about mussel farming in Kerala, at least to me, is found in a study by V. Kripa and K.S. Mohamed. Their study is entitled "Green Mussel, Perna Viridis, Farming in Kerala, India - Technology Diffusion Process and Socioeconomic Impacts" (2008). As Kripa and Mohamed report, there were three types of ownership when it came to mussel farms. There were individual ownership and family ownership, both of which are self-explanatory. And, there was "self-help group" ownership or SHG ownership. There were only about 17 to 20 SHG mussel farms, all of which were located in one district (the Kasgorod district) of Kerala
The SHG mussel farms are the key to empowering women. As both Kripa and Mohamed found, "[t]he biggest outcome of mussel farming in Kerala was the empowerment of women with 87% of the SHG farms owned by women." The SHG is a formal organization, with officers and group meetings. This organization makes it easier for women to obtain financial assistance and support from local banks and the government. Those 17 to 20 SHG mussel farms have enabled as many as 2,000 women to become active in an economic activity, which enables them to better support themselves and their families. The SHGs not only help to alleviate poverty, but they also empower women not only in the economic workplace, but also when it comes to decision-making in their homes.
This recipe demonstrates what can be made with those green mussels, as well as blue and black mussels that are traditionally found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It incorporates a wide range of ingredients, especially in the Malabar Masala. (One note: don't let the fact that you can't find some of the masala ingredients -- like the curry leaf powder -- stop you from making the dish. The masala will still be great.) Along with the masala, the combination of fresh chiles, ginger, garlic, and red onions also provide an interesting array of range of tastes and flavors. The sauce was so good that I decided to serve the dish with some rice, which could help to soak up some of the sauce. I hated to see that sauce go to waste.
Adapted from Smita Chandra's recipe published by Saveur
Ingredients (for the mussels):
3 tablespoons of canola oil
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 small green Thai chiles or 1 serrano, thinly sliced
1 two-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of Malabar Masala (recipe below)
3 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 14 ounce can of coconut milk
Kosher salt, to taste
2 1/2 pounds of mussels, debearded, rinsed and scrubbed
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
Cooked white rice, for serving (optional)
Ingredients (for the Malabar Masala):
1/4 cup of coriander seeds
2 tablespoons of cumin seeds
2 tablespoons of fennel seeds
1 tablespoon of green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon of whole cloves
1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon of fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns
2 star anise
2 sticks of cinnamon
2 tablespoons of dessicated coconut
2 tablespoons of dried fenugreek leaves
1 tablespoon of crushed red chile flakes
1/3 cup of curry leaf powder
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1. Prepare the Malabar Masala. Heat a 10 inch skillet over medium high heat. Cook coriander, cumin, fennel, cardamom, cloves, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, star anise, and cinnamon sticks until fragrant and toasted, about 3-4 minutes. Add coconut, fenugreek leaves and chile flakes, cook until the coconut is golden, 2 minutes. Let cool and then transfer to a spice grinder along with curry leaf powder, ginger, and turmeric. Grind into a powder and store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
2. Prepare the base. Heat oil in a 6 quart saucepan over medium high heat. Cook garlic, chiles, ginger, and onion until golden, about 4 to 6 minutes. Add masala and tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Cook the mussels. Add coconut milk, salt, and 1/4 cup of water and bring to a boil. Add the mussels. Cook covered, occasionally shaking pan until all mussels are opened, about 5 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice.