I love Indian food and mamak food in particular. We often go to one particular place in Kuching almost weekly for roti and thosai. The thosai comes with dipping sauces of dhal and coconut chutney but we like the fish curry sauce the best.
One day I got some pieces of fish to go along with the curry. It was delicious! But then we got the bill and it turned out that the fish pieces were 5 ringgit each! Being the pake person that I am, I decided that I should learn to cook fish curry for myself because then I could buy a whole fish for 20 ringgit and save some money.
Armed with just my instincts and the flavor profile that I got from having this fish curry over several visits I decided to try to recreate it.
Indian Fish Curry
First of all, I knew I was going to need some fish curry powder, which I got at the grocery store. And I knew I was going to need the general condiments that go into curries which are garlic, shallots and ginger. I got some nice tenggiri (mackerel) and, because I love ladies fingers (okra), I made sure to get a lot of that as well.
My first attempt, I threw in some fenugreek just because I had it at home and I had this feeling that it was going to work with fish. I sauteed my aromatics, added the curry powder with water (following the instructions on the back of the package) brought it to a boil, and let it simmer a little bit.
After tasting it, I thought it needed some sourness, so I added a slice of assam keping. Let it simmer some more and tasted it again – whoa, it’s pretty sour so I took the assam slice out. I threw in the ladies fingers and then the fish and let it cook for under 10 minutes or just cooked, and served it.
The first attempt was all right but meh – definitely not as good as the one we had. Some things that didn’t quite work were: I could still taste the “chalkiness” of the powder in the curry – it had not cooked through so there was a raw, powdery flavor. It lacked heat – it needed some chilies to go with it. The assam keping added sourness, but it wasn’t a rounded, well-balanced flavor.
Try, Try Again
So I set out to try again. My second attempt was a little better. This time I kept the assam keping but left it just long enough to give it sourness. I boiled the curry a lot longer before adding the ladies fingers and let that cook for a while too, then I added the fish.
The second time was slightly better. This time the powdery chalky flavor was gone, but I had overcooked the ladies fingers because I let it boil too long before I added the fish.
Tips from a Pro
Before I tried the third time, we had gone to KL for a visit, and my friend took us to a really nice Indian restaurant in Brickfields for some banana leaf rice. She knew the owner and so I had a chance to chat with her when we had finished our meal. During the conversation, it came out that I had tried to make fish curry, and I told her what I did.
She said that I did it all right. Her advice was to not use assam keping but to use tamarind juice instead. She said that cooks in restaurants put the fish in and take it out just as the fish is about done, and then let the curry continue to simmer. They let the curry cook for 2 hours to get rid of the raw taste, then put the fish back in at the end.
The other way to get rid of the raw taste of the the curry powder would be to fry it in oil before adding the liquids, but that makes it more oily because the powder sucks up more oil.
She did confirm that fenugreek is the perfect spice for fish curry.
Third Time’s the Charm
So for my third attempt, I decided to just simmer the curry longer before adding the veggies and the fish. Instead of using assam keping, I used tamarind. Instead of just cutting up the onions, garlic and ginger, I decided to pound it along with a couple of chilies into a paste.
This time round, I would say I came very close to what the restaurant served. It could have used perhaps a little more heat, but seeing as I have two young children, this was the right amount of heat. Nate pronounced it, “very good!”
Indian Fish Curry Recipe
Prep time:20 min, Cook time:50 min
1 lb to 1.5 lb mackerel, cut into steaks about 1 inch thick
10 whole okra (choose young ones)
2 tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 large red onion, large dice
Aromatic paste (blend or mash these ingredients)
3 cloves garlic
2 whole red chillies
1 inch of ginger, roughly chopped
3 heaping Tbsp of fish curry powder
1 tsp fenugreek
2 sprigs curry leaves
3 cups water + 1/2 cup water for tamarind pulp
1 Tbsp tamarind pulp
salt to taste
3-4 tbsp cooking oil
Ingredients for Indian Fish Curry
1. Start by pounding or blending the garlic, chilies, shallots and ginger into a paste.
2. Heat up the wok medium-medium low heat and add the oil. Throw in the curry leaves and the fenugreek, stirring constantly to make sure the fenugreek doesn’t burn. When the curry leaves start to smell really fragrant, throw in the rest of the paste. Stir-fry that until fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Make sure you don’t burn your spices.
Frying Curry Leaves and Aromatic Paste
3. Add the 3 heaping tbsp curry powder. Stir it quickly. At this point you won’t have enough oil so have ready your 3 cups of water to throw in. Throw in the water, stir, and bring the heat up to high to bring the curry to a boil.
4. Mix the other half cup of water together with the tablespoon of tamarind pulp. Mash the pulp until the water is muddy looking. Using a sieve, add the tamarind juice to the curry, pressing to get all the liquid out of the pulp and into the stock.
At this point, your curry will taste sour and not very flavorful. Don’t worry about it – the fish will add sweetness.
5. Add about 1/2 tsp to a tsp of salt and allow the curry to come to a boil. Throw in your tomatoes and your onions. Turn your heat down and let it simmer on low heat for about 1/2 hr.
Adding Curry, Water, Tamarind, Tomato and Onions
6. Throw in your fish and vegetables. It should be almost stew like. If you are using okra, leave them whole as if you cut them, they will release their sticky sap and thicken your soup. (If you do want to cut the okra, deep fry them first.)
If you don’t like okra, you can use other vegetables, like eggplant or long beans. But who doesn’t like okra?
Adding Okra and Mackerel to Indian Fish Curry
Simmer for 10 minutes or until the fish is done. Adjust the flavors. if it needs a little bit more sweetness, you can add a bit of fish sauce or some ikan bilis bouillon. (I normally use about a 1/2 teaspoon.)
Serve it over rice. If you like it to be more spicy you can throw in a couple more whole chili padi.
Indian Fish Curry
Good For You
Indian fish curry is a really good alternative to coconut-based Malaysian curries because the flavors are punchy yet the ingredients are so much more healthy and good for you. However, it’s almost impossible to eat this dish with just a little bit of rice, so that will still get you in the end. (You could, of course, eat it with chapati or roti. Curry sauce is a wonderful dip for these flat breads.)
For its use of fenugreek, I am entering this post in the Weekend Herb Blogging roundup, hosted by Haalo of Cook Almost Anything.
Check out other recipes using fenugreek:
Chicken Drumsticks, Ethiopian Style by Simply Recipes
Sujuk, Armenian Style Sausage by Tony Tahhan
Whole Roast Chicken with Fenugreek by The Culinary Life
Indian Lentil Soup with Fenugreek by Herbivoracious
Fenugreek Seeds with Potatoes by eCurry