Maldives-style Spiced Fish
SERVES 4–8 Total: 30–35 min. At her home in Colombo, Seema Ahmed makes this grilled spicerubbed fish using mekunu, a type of mullet endemic to the Maldives, but any whole gutted and scaled fish of about 1½ to 2 pounds will work. Slide the fish gently into hot oil to help prevent it from sticking, and watch the skin carefully for burning.
8–20 dried Thai chiles 12 fresh curry leaves 4 medium garlic cloves 2 medium shallots (1¾ oz.), coarsely chopped 1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice 2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 2 tsp. ground cumin 1½ tsp. kosher salt 2 1½- to 2-lb. whole fish such as sea bass or red snapper, gutted and scaled ½ cup unrefined coconut oil
1 In the bowl of a small food processor, combine the chiles, curry leaves, garlic, shallot, lime juice, black pepper, cumin, and salt; pulse to form a coarse but homogenous paste. If the mixture is very crumbly, add cold water 1 tablespoon at a time (do not exceed 4 tablespoons) to loosen, stopping when the mixture looks spreadable but still fairly dry.
2 Position the fish lengthwise on a clean cutting board. Using a large, sharp chef’s knife, cut each fish in half crosswise if desired. Score deep vertical lines across the entire side of the fish about ¼ to ½ inch apart all along the body. Rub the spice paste all over the outside of the fish and inside the slits.
3 In a large skillet, heat ¼ cup coconut oil over high heat until almost smoking. Working in batches to avoid crowding, slide the fish into the pan and cook, undisturbed, until the skin is well browned and removes easily from the skillet, 7–10 minutes. Use a fish spatula to carefully flip the fish, keeping the skin as intact as possible. Cook for another 7–10 minutes, checking for doneness by opening one of the slits and making sure the flesh is opaque to the bone. Remove the fish to a serving platter. Wipe out the pan, add an additional ¼ cup coconut oil, and repeat with the second fish. Serve immediately.
Above: Seema Ahmed stirs her mas-bai (see recipe below). Opposite page: A vendor at Manning Market.