Goan fish curry

The Guardian - Supplement - - The Perfect -

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.

The spices

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 co­conut

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

prawns (or

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.

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