Aki came over for dinner last night and we tried to do all the dirty work in advance. However, we seem to go at our own pace when cooking, and things rarely turn out like magic. After a bit of practice with this recipe, the 10 minute theatrics of making the curry come to life will surely be something to save for the crowd. The spicy and very savory curry of this dish goes well with the softness and sweetness of the fish. The shallots are similar to the small pinkish onions found all over India, and give a more complex flavor than yellow onions.
Basically this recipe is pure genius (and a lot of ghee and chili). I pulled it from Mangoes & Curry Leaves, an exquisite cookbooks by a husband and wife team of who bring recipes from East to West in as much their original form as cultural difference will allow. Some modifications have been made for availability (nontraditional shallots and Tilapia are used in this recipe). The recipes come from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This particular one is from the state of Kerala on the the southwestern tip of the Indian peninsula. My father was born in Alathur. Much of Kerala is covered in rice patties off the coast. Due to the state’s communist history and later social reform favoring laborers, education (90% literacy rate) and health have always been a higher standard than neighboring states.
Notes about process
One significant way Indian recipes differ from Western ones is by incorporating spices at different points in the recipe to develop the flavor. This makes the list of ingredients look daunting, even if many of them are the same.
In this recipe, the process begins with adding seeds and leaves to oil, then the masala paste (a pre-blended mix of spices), then the fish, then tempering. Tempering/Baghar/Tadka/Chonk is a technique used to add flavor to a dish quickly. Spices and herbs are added to a hot oil until they pop (flavor opens up). Then they are added directly to the dish.
Notes about fish
Selecting a fish today is like maneuvering through a battlefield. Tilapia, the freshwater fish that has grown increasingly popular for aquaculture, was the recommendation for this recipe. If you can find it wild, its sweet mild flavor and firm texture are wonderful for this recipe. The key is to find a mild and firm white fish that will quickly absorb the flavors of the dish. Others that come to mind are sole, flounder, snapper, or maybe even monkfish.
Cayenne chilies have a lot of heat that is long lasting but also a good flavor. You can’t really substitute these for any other chili. If you use 9 this dish will probably be quite hot, so use discretion. Don’t be a hero. If you burn your mouth you won’t taste anything. I always serve hot Indian dishes with yogurt, especially when making them for the first time.
I substituted the 1 inch long green chilies and felt the heat was perfect.
3 tablespoons ginger, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup shallots, coarsely chopped
6 green cayenne chilies, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup packed fresh coriander leaves and stems
/2 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut, or substitute dried shredded coconut mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon tumeric
Place the ginger, garlic, shallots, chilies, and fresh coriander in a food processor or stone mortar and process to a coarse paste. Add in the coconut and check the moisture. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the ground coriander and tumeric. Set aside. This can be done a day in advance.
About 4 tablespoons ghee (or butter, if you must)
4 to 6 fresh or frozen curry leaves
1/2 cup sliced shallots
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 green cayenne chilies, stemmed and cut in half
Your tempering should be made as close to plating as possible, ideally about the same time you start cooking the curry. Heat the ghee in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
Toss in the curry leaves, wait 20 seconds, then add the shallots and garlic.
Lower the heat to medium and cook until starting to soften, about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the chilies and cook until the shallots are very soft and touched with brown, about 5 minutes more. Set aside.
1 1/2 pounds tilapia (not farm-raised)
1/2 cup coconut oil or other vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1/2 cup fresh or frozen curry leaves
2 cups water (1 cup if using tomato)
4 to 6 pieces fish tamarind, or substitute 1 cup chopped green tomatoes
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
Rinse the fish fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces and set aside. Heat the oil in a wok or large pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the mustard seeds. Once they have started to pop and turn gray, add in the curry leaves and masala paste. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil rises to the surface, about 5 minutes. It will literally begin to pool and separate from the mixture. Make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the water and fish tamarind or tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add the salt and the fish and simmer, turning the fish once, for 3 to 5 minutes, until just barely cooked through. Add the tempering mixture and simmer for a minute, then serve hot over brown rice.
If you already have the basic spices and seeds for Indian cooking, here’s what you’d need to accomplish this recipe:
1 head garlic
9 green cayenne chilies (found at Indian specialty stores)
1 bunch fresh coriander
1 1/2 pounds tilapia
Fresh or frozen curry leaves
4-6 pieces fish tamarind
1 bag frozen or fresh coconut