My red fish curry was born from my love of fish curries from the western coast of India. It’s not ‘authentic’ in the sense that it incorporates elements from Malvani, Goan and even Malabari cuisines. Although each of these regional cuisines is different in its basic flavours and in the way it combines seafood, spices and other aromatics to create unique dishes, more than a few ingredients are common to all of them.
All along the Arabian Sea, whether it’s southern Maharashtra, Malvan, Goa, Coastal Karnataka or Kerala, you will find dishes redolent with coconuts, curry leaves, kokum (garcinia indica or fish tamarind is a orange berry which turns black on drying and is used as a souring agent), and dried red chillies such as Kashmiri, Bedagi etc. What is amazing is that despite the commonality of these ingredients, there is no homogeneity but rather a delicious diversity of dishes. Just the fish curries would make a long list – ranging from fiery curries, and light stews to silky coconut milk concoctions and rich, spice-laden creations. Although my red fish curry uses only a few ingredients, each one brings with it a sort of heritage, if you like, of taste and aroma, all of which when melded together, creates a curry that hails very distinctly from somewhere on the western coast.
Almost all fish curries along this stretch of the Arabian Sea coast incorporate some kind of souring agent – tamarind, kokum (aamsul) or vinegar. For this curry, I’ve gone for the caramel acidity of malted vinegar; Goan coconut vinegar would be perfect but I ran out. You need a vinegar that’s somewhat gentle, with a mild sweetness even, nothing too sharp. The acid must be rounded and mustn’t hit the fish or the back of the throat too hard.
The flaming vermillion hue comes from dried Kashmiri chillies; these add vibrance but not too much heat and are a must-have ingredient for this red fish curry. Ground Kashmiri chilli powder is fine if you can’t get your hands on whole chillies. I did add just a dash of regular chilli powder for some extra heat but I leave that choice to you.
This red fish curry has seer fish (surmai), a firm, white fish that stands up well to the robustness of spices and curries. Mackerel, salmon or any other oily fish would also be delicious in this curry. The fish is ‘curry-cut’, into bone-in, 1-inch thick slices. Like most fish curries, this one too tastes its best the next day. A few hours’ rest allows the spices to bloom and build deeper levels of flavour. That said, this time we couldn’t wait and devoured it for lunch with steamed rice and papads. This curry is also delicious with dosas; the pleasure of mopping up the thick gravy with a piece of crisp dosa or fluffy appam is one worth experiencing.
Coastal Red Fish Curry
- 600 g seer fish cleaned and cut into 1-inch, thick slices
- 10-15 shallots or sambaar onions peeled and sliced
- ¾ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp coconut oil (optional)
- 10 fresh curry leaves
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
For the red masala
- 6 dried Kashmiri red chillies soaked in a little warm water
- 1 tbsp Kashmiri chilli power (instead of whole chillies)
- 50 g desiccated coconut
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp poppy seeds
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- ⅙ tsp fenugreek (methi) seeds
- 2 tbsp malt or coconut vinegar
- Sprinkle the turmeric and about a ¼ tsp of salt over the fish, mix well and set aside for 10 mins while you grind the spice paste.
- Drain the soaked chillies (if using whole chillies and reserve some of the water to add to the curry later) and grind to a fine paste along with all the other ingredients for the masala including the vinegar.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a deep pan, add the mustard seeds and curry leaves and allow the seeds to crackle.
- Now add the sliced shallots and saute on medium heat till they are translucent.
- Stir in the masala paste and cook on low-medium flame for 3-5 mins, adding a little water if necessary to prevent the spices from burning.
- Once you notice the oil separating on the sides, add a little more water (not too much, the gravy must be thick), season and slide in the fish pieces.
- Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes till the fish is cooked but not falling apart.
- Turn off the heat, pour the coconut oil over, stir and serve.