Mal­dives-style Spiced Fish

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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.

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