Tharavu Mappas is a traditional duck curry from the Kuttanad. It is a fragrant, rich dish in which pieces of duck are cooked in a sauce of coconut milk and spices. For many this is a must-have dish on the Christmas dinner menu.
Kuttanad is the waterlogged region in the south Indian state of Kerala where boats and canoes were the main mode of transportation up until a few decades back . This abundance of water makes it an ideal place for water-intensive farming. So there is rice, waterfowls like duck and geese, and of course fish. Not surprisingly many of the traditional recipes in this region features these ingredients .
This abundance does not mean that everyone ate fish or duck with every meal, though some form of rice was the norm with every meal . My MIL, who hails from this region, is a lifelong vegetarian. But even she was known to cook fish on occasion.
Monsoon in Kuttanad
My first road trip to Kuttnad was with DH. It was a beautiful drive – the highlight being the long narrow strip of road with paddy fields on either side. During the rainy season the fields and parts of the road will be flooded with water. Monsoon or not there will be shops selling duck eggs, duck, and fish every few hundred meters along this stretch of road.
Here is my Lil guy fishing from the verandah. This was during the thick of monsoon and we were just a few inches above the water. Most of the water will recede after the rains to reveal mineral-enriched paddy fields.
One can rent houseboats and spend days on the water here. Catch your fresh fish and cook it right on the boat, refill provisions from the store on the banks. One is never too far from civilization, but still able to shut it out at will – there is something to be said for that! Well, maybe not in the rainy season.
Come to think of it, maybe one could even buy a duck from a farmer in one of the tiny islands in the water. People are usually friendly and you may be able to charm your way into a home-cooked meal! Something to try when we hang up our aprons and go globetrotting.
Preparing Duck For The Curry
Duck skin is thick compared to chicken skin. Many love the crispy fried or grilled duck skin. Traditionally duck is cooked with the skin on. It makes the curry much thicker and richer. But traditionally people had a harder life and used to need all the calories and fat they could get. Such is not the case today and I am not a fan of the skin. So I leave it out, but it is entirely up to you.
What I would recommend though, is to get a young duck. Cut it into 3 to 4 inch long pieces, just like you would for chicken curry.
Tharavu Mappas makes use of freshly ground whole spices. Usually it is combination of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, pepper, fennel, and star anise. Cooks might add more spices or leave some out depending on personal preferences.
I like to crush the spices in my mortar and pestle, as the quantity small. You can use a blender jar or coffee grinder as well. The essential oils from the spices release when crushed. This is a good indicator of the flavors of the finished dish.
Refrigerate extra spice powder and use it within a few days. Use the leftover spice powder sprinkle on kabobs or flavor other hearty meat curries.
One could use a canned version or make fresh coconut milk. The traditional way is to extract fresh coconut milk just before cooking. If trying this method use the thin milk to cook the meat and the thick milk to flavor and thicken the curry towards the end. Personally, I think this adds more flavors to the meat.
Making Duck Curry Under Pressure
Making Tharavu Mappas in the traditional way calls for slow cooking over a wood fire. The wood-burning stove adds more nuanced flavors to this dish. It is time-consuming and more importantly involves much more cleanup work afterward. So this is something I would enjoy when my role is just limited to relishing the dish.
Cooking in a pressure cooker is much less time consuming, and the hands-on cooking time is very little. The covered cooking under pressure also helps the meat absorb more flavors as well.
Discarding the skin and excess fat makes this dish leaner as well. It may be low on fat, but definitely not low on flavors.
- 1 Whole Young Duck ( 4 – 5 lbs or 2 kg )
For Marinating Duck
- 1 Tsp Fresh Ground Pepper
- 1 Tsp Turmeric powder
- 1 Tbsp Vinegar
Whole Spices To Powder Together
- 1 Inch Cinnamon stick
- 6 Cloves
- 3 Green Cardamom
- 1 Tsp Whole Peppercorns
- 1 Tsp Fennel
- 1 Star Anise
- 2 C Onions, Thinly Sliced
- 1 Inch Fresh Root Ginger
- 3 – 4 Green chilies Serrano or similar
- 1/4 C Garlic Cloves
- Few Curry leaves
- 1 1/2 Salt To Taste
- 1 Tsp Chili powder
- 1 Tbsp Coriander powder
- 2 Tbsp Coconut Oil
- 1 Can Coconut Milk See Notes
- 1 C Hot water
- 1 Tsp Pepper Powder
- 1 Tsp Garam Masala Notes
Marinate the duck
- Clean and skin the duck. Cut into 3 to 4 inch long pieces. Pat dry with kitchen towels to remove excess moisture. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together. Rub the marinade all over the duck and set aside for 20 minutes.
Make the dry spice powder
- Dry roast (optional) and powder fennel, star anise, cardamom, peppercorns, and cloves.
- Thinly slice the onions, ginger, and garlic. Slit the green chilies.
Stove Top Pressure Cooker Version
- Heat coconut oil in the pressure cooker and add the curry leaves and green chilies. Keep the heat on medium and fry for a minute and add the sliced onions. Cook for a few minutes, stirring as needed. When the onions turn brown, add the sliced ginger and garlic. Sauté for a minute or two and add the powdered spices, chili powder, coriander powder, and 1 tsp of salt.
- Stir and cook for a minute until the spicy aromas fill the air. Add the duck pieces and cook for 5 minutes over medium high heat stirring often. Add the hot water (or thin coconut milk ). Place the lid on and pressure-cook the duck. If on a traditional stove top pressure cooker it takes up to 3 whistles or about 10 to 12 minutes of high pressure in an electric one.
Instant Pot / Electric Pressure Cooker Version
- Follow the above instructions. and cook in saute mode till you add hot water/thin coconut milk. Switch to manual pressure high for 12 minutes. Place the lid on and finish cooking.
- Let the pressure release naturally. Open the cooker and check if the duck meat has cooked. If needed replace the lid and simmer for 5 to 10 more minutes.
- Taste and adjust salt. Bring the curry to a boil and add coconut cream ( Or the first extraction of fresh coconut milk) from the can. Turn off the heat and replace the lid.
- Let the curry rest for 30 minutes before serving. It tastes best if allowed to rest overnight.
- Before serving warm the curry and sprinkle a little garam masala and pepper powder on top.
- Skinning the duck is entirely at your discretion.
- Fresh young duck cooks in about 10 minutes in the pressure cooker. But with store bought frozen version I have had mixed luck. Some needed 3 times the cooking time, so choose a good quality young duck.
- If fresh coconut milk is available I recommend using it.
- You can use store bough or home made garam masala. Here is my all purpose garam masala recipe.
Important: Nutrition Values are estimates. Actuals vary based on ingredients and serving size.
Serve t his curry with Appam or pathiri or Ghee Rice ..
A. S. Mathew
Sunday 18th of July 2021
Though I was born in Kerala, not far away from Kuttanadu, never knew about these new information. Left the country at the age 26, once in a while visited the homeland. I wish if I could spend days in this water land of Kerala eating fish and other food prepared in the local style. I am learning more about this place every day.