Goan fish curry
Never one to buck a cliche, I spent a year after school travelling around India, eating samosas by the bucketful. The biggest revelation came in Goa, courtesy of the many restaurants that would turn out the most glorious, coconut-rich, hot and sour fish curries. I became quite addicted. As we travelled further south, I realised that Goa doesn’t have a monopoly on great fish curries, but they do remain some of my favourites. The fish
I initially think the variety of fish will be an important consideration. Gordon Ramsay specifies a “firmfleshed” species, such as “kingfish, monkfish, halibut or tuna” for the Goan fish curry in his Great Escape book. Camellia Panjabi explains in 50 Great Curries of India that pomfret, a flat fish, is the Indian choice (a fact corroborated by Michelle Peters-jones, the Mangaloreborn former Masterchef quarter-finalist, who very kindly sends me her mum’s recipe adapted from that of Goan food writer Maria Teresa Menezes). Vivek Singh opts for turbot in the Cinnamon Club Seafood Cookbook, while the ever-wise Madhur Jaffrey exhorts readers of her Ultimate Curry Bible to “experiment with your local fish. It is better to get very fresh fish, whatever it be, than to hunt all day for a specific fish preferred in a recipe.”
Ramsay’s right; although the fish is generally added at the end of the cooking process, it’s best to use something quite robust so that it doesn’t fall apart in the pan. The delicate flavour of monkfish, halibut or turbot seems wasted here; tuna and mackerel are too assertive. I plump for pollock, but anything firm and white that comes with solid-gold Hugh Fearnley-whittingstall credentials should do. Jaffrey waxes lyrical about Goan prawn curry in Flavours of India, giving me an excuse to pop a few of those in too, but, as long as it’s seafood, feel free to choose whatever looks good.
Although most recipes leave the fish well alone, Panjabi marinates hers in lime juice, turmeric and salt before adding it to the curry; and Singh coats his turbot in black onion seeds, curry leaves, turmeric and salt before frying it separately. The lime juice seems to smother the flavour, and Singh’s onion seeds, while looking pretty, will get lost in a curry. I decide to keep the fish simple, and concentrate on the flavour of the sauce instead.
Most critical to the character of the final dish is the masala, the spice paste that forms the base of the sauce. There are some ingredients common to all the recipes
I try – garlic, turmeric, red chillies, coriander seeds – and some more esoteric additions. Singh includes star anise, for example, a spice more typical of points further east but which, according to Jaffrey, is a legacy of Goa’s trading past, and I love the slightly mentholated character it give his sauce. He also uses cloves, which add a deep sweetness.
Jaffrey, Peters-jones and Rick Stein, in his book Fruits of the Sea, include ginger as well as garlic in their pastes, which adds another layer of heat on top of the relatively mild Kashmiri chillies specified by most recipes; Jaffrey uses cayenne pepper and paprika instead. I initially assume this is because of the difficulty of obtaining these when her book was first published, but then notice she also calls for kokum, the dried skin of a fruit belonging to the mangosteen family, which is fairly hard to come by even today. Whatever the reason, the Kashmiri chillies provide both gentle heat and vivid colour in one handy package.
The sour element
The most common way of achieving the sour element of the dish is to use tamarind pulp. However, Jaffrey deploys her kokum, which I find in an Indian supermarket in London’s Brick Lane; and Singh, white vinegar. Although I’m so fond of tamarind that I’m mildly addicted to the tamarind sweets often found on the counter of Caribbean grocers, here, I prefer vinegar.
Perhaps it’s because it reminds me of vindaloo, but the biting acidity of the Cinnamon Club sauce is gloriously, undeniably Goan. To balance the astringency of the vinegar, Singh adds a little sugar – I use palm sugar, which has a wonderful honeyed flavour.
The coconuts that grow so abundantly in Goa are put to good use in the recipes I try. Panjabi adds fresh coconut to her spice paste; Menezes, coconut cream; and everyone else, coconut milk, which, with a dash of water, seems the best option. 400ml tin coconut milk 2 fresh green chillies, slit lengthwise
Salt and black pepper
firm, white fish, cut into 2cm chunks
400g 200g For the masala 3cm For the tadka 600g
1 tsp cloves
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
8 dried red Kashmiri chillies
2 star anise
½ tsp turmeric
1 tbsp palm sugar
1 tsp salt
5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
root ginger, peeled and grated
1½ tbsp white vinegar 1 tbsp vegetable oil ½ tsp mustard seeds 10 curry leaves Coriander, to garnish fish)
To make the masala, toast the spices in a dry pan until aromatic. Grind to a powder in a food processor or pestle and mortar, and then mix in the remaining ingredients.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large pan over a medium-high heat, then add the onion. Fry until soft and lightly golden, then stir in the masala mix. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes, until you can really smell the spices, then stir in the tomato and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Mix in the coconut milk and 100ml water, add the chillies and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes until the sauce has thickened slightly. Taste for seasoning. Add the seafood and cook for about five minutes.
Meanwhile, make the tadka. Heat the oil in a frying pan on a high heat, then add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. Cook for 30 seconds, until they begin to pop, then stir into the curry. Serve with rice and coriander to garnish.