Tamarind Fish Curry (or how to keep your fish from falling apart)

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Have you ever tried adding a softer fish pieces to a curry or thick stew? Usually you end up with finely broken pieces of fish swimming around in the sauce. Annoyed by it? Me too.

Unless you are extremely careful when adding and stirring, fatty cuts of salmon, cod, soles and other whitefish have an unfortunate habit of not staying together when added to sauces–and even with care the chances of the fish pieces staying intact are poor at best.

I encountered this when I first started making fish curries–in particularly an otherwise excellent Salmon Curry by author Das Sreedharan. In it he instructs the reader to add cubed salmon to the finished curry until cooked then to stir in coconut milk to finish. I tried to make this dish several times, only to be met with tiny bits of fish spread evenly through the curry instead of the rich savoury salmon chunks shown in his accompanying illustration.

If nothing else I can be a bit stubborn, so I modified the dish with a simple trick and the result was fantastic–so much so that my family won’t have it any other way. The trick, which I’ve applied to other delicate dishes, is to shallow fry the fish pieces (after marinating and a light dusting of chana flour) before adding them to the finished curry. The fish chunks come out moist and just burst with flavour in the mouth. Along the way I’ve tweaked the curry a bit to create a very memorable if somewhat different dish from what Sreedharan originally created.

Menu

  • Tamarind fish curry
  • Basmati rice
  • Spiced peanuts
  • Garlic green beans
  • Fresh cut strawberries
  • Milk for the kids, Malbec for the adults

Recipe: Tamarind Fish Curry

Marinade and Fish:

  • 1-2 Tbs Light cooking oil (Canola)
  • 1 tsp Cummin seed, ground
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Hot Indian paprika or ground chilies
  • 2 tsp Amchur powder
  • 1/2 tsp Sea salt (optional)
  • 2-3 tsp Palm or white vinegar
  • 3/4-1 lb Salmon, lingcod or other whitefish cut into 1″ cubes (see method/notes)
  • Cooking oil for frying

Flour:

  • 1/4 c Chana (chickpea) flour, or bleached wheat flour (the latter is not GF of course)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Curry:

  • 1-2 Tbs Light cooking oil (Canola)
  • 10 Kari (curry) leaves
  • Pinch Fenugreek seeds, whole
  • 2 tsp Black or brown mustard seeds, whole
  • 1 Med Onion, Finely diced
  • 4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1″ pc Ginger root, minced
  • 1-3 Tbs Sambal oelek or 2-3 small fresh red chilies minced
  • 2 tsp Cumin seed, ground
  • 3 tsp Amchur powder
  • 1/2 tsp Tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Chilies or Indian paprika, ground
  • 3/4-1 c Tamarind liquid (see method/notes)
  • 1 12oz can Stewed or diced tomatoes, or 2 whole tomatoes diced
  • 1-4 tsp Palm or brown sugar to taste
  • Salt to taste

Method

    Part 1: Fish

  1. Prepare the fish with an optional 15 minute salt cure (see notes)
  2. Cut fish into approximately 1″ cubes and set aside
  3. Whisk together remaining marinade ingredients in a medium bowl
  4. Add the cubed fish to the marinade and stir lightly to coat
  5. Transfer fish and marinade into a plastic bag, remove air and seal
  6. Let fish marinate for at least 20 minutes. While the fish marinates prepare vegetables and other ingredients for the curry
  7. Setting the fish aside, combine the chana flour, salt and pepper in a shallow soup bowl or similar container
  8. Remove fish cubes from bag, wipe off excess marinade, roll in flour mixture to lightly coat
  9. In a wok or medium saucepan add cooking oil for shallow frying–approximately 1/4″ deep, and heat over a medium-high element
  10. When oil is hot, carefully add the fish cubes (about 6 at a time) and fry on all sides until golden brown
  11. Transfer cooked fish pieces on to a plate layered with paper towel to absorb excess oil and place in a warm oven (approximately 175 F)
  12. Repeat process until all the fish pieces are cooked
  13. ——–
    Part 2: Curry

  14. Add 1-2 Tbs oil to a wok or deep bottom saucepan and heat over a medium-high element
  15. When the oil is hot, add kari leaves, mustard seeds and fenugreek and cook for about 30 seconds until the leaves and mustard seeds stop spitting
  16. Lower the heat to medium and add the onions, sauteing until soft or lightly brown (about 10-20 minutes)
  17. Add garlic, ginger and sambal and stir for a minute or two
  18. Add remaining dry spices and stir for another minute
  19. Add tamarind liquid and tomatoes and stir until well combined
  20. Reduce heat and let simmer until the tomatoes are well softened and the flavours have combined (about 20 to 30 minutes) adding water as required to prevent the dish from drying out
  21. Taste and add sugar as required to balance the sourness of the tamarind
  22. After the curry is finished add the fish pieces, stirring gently to combine and heat
  23. Serve the dish in a suitably sized bowl

Notes: It took a while to write this one up because of the steps involved, but it’s really less work than it would seem. Salt curing the fish before cooking is an optional step, but one that changes the texture and firms the fish up. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but essentially it involves lightly covering the fish pieces with kosher or pickling salt, wrapping them in absorbent paper towel or cloth for about 15 minutes, then rinsing the salt off under cold running water. It adds very little salt to the finished dish, but changes the texture and allows the fish soak up any marinade it’s placed in. The tamarind liquid is made by placing 2-3 Tbs of tamarind pulp in a cup of boiling water. Leave it to soften for 5 to 10 minutes before breaking it up with either fingers or a fork, then strain the water and pulp through a fine sieve pushing as much pulp as possible through the sieve. You’ll end up with slightly less volume than you started with, but the result is a delicious sour-sweet liquid called for in many South and Southeast Asian dishes.

Serves 4-6

Aaron

Hot Tamales!

I made tamales for the first time last night. Well I should say I heated pre-made tamales last night.

I’ve travelled through Mexico a bit and eaten a wide variety of traditional dishes, but this is the first time I’ve served tamales. It’s not like I haven’t heard of them–like enchiladas or refritos, they’re almost iconic in Mexican cuisine. For those who haven’t come across this dish before, a tamale is a seasoned centre filling (usually chicken or pork) surrounded in a thick masa dough that is packaged and cooked in dried corn husk skins or plantain leaves.

We picked up ours at a local Mexican food wholesaler/retailer, El Comal, where they make a wide assortment of authentic Mexican food plus some of the best tortillas north of the 49th parallel. We grabbed a half dozen ready to heat chicken tamales pre-wrapped in their familiar dried corn husk “skins”. The daughter of the owner at El Comal said that you could microwave, steam, bake or grill them–anything but boiling. I opted to grill them over a low flame–turning every 4-7 minutes for a total of about 15-20 minutes. I was flying a bit blind having not been given any instructions other than “heat and serve”, but the results were very good–at least to my eye.

They were, well… nice. Not “exploding with flavour” nice, but more of a wholesome “comfort food” nice. Once removed from the husks and drizzled with a yogurt/salsa picante sauce they made a good protein/carbohydrate centre to the family meal. My children were especially enthusiastic about them, eating four of the six tamales between them.

Tamale Meal for Four

  • 6-8 Tamales
  • Yogurt and salsa picante sauce
  • Oaxacan black beans (recipe below)
  • Feta stuffed mini bell peppers
  • Sliced oranges
  • Milk for the kids, red wine for us

To make the yogurt and salsa picante sauce, simply combine very spicy thin salsa with 3.5% MF yogurt to taste. The bean recipe shown below was a nice addition to the meal.

Recipe: Oaxacan Black Beans

  • 19 oz Can of black beans (sometimes called Turtle beans)
  • 2-3 Strips of bacon, chopped
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 Tbs Olive oil or butter
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Water or chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. Rinse beans in a fine sieve removing the liquid and any fine particles
  2. Melt butter or heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat
  3. Saute onions and chopped bacon until onions become translucent
  4. Add cinnamon and beans to the pan stirring to coat the beans in oil and combine the ingredients well
  5. Lightly mash a small portion of the beans using a wooden spoon and stir gently to combine
  6. Continue cooking for a few minutes stirring frequently to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pan
  7. Add water or stock to create a saucy consistency and simmer for five minutes stirring frequently
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste
  9. Transfer to a bowl and serve warm

Notes: I make this dish quite often. This simple bean recipe makes a nice accompaniment to any Mexican inspired dish. It adds protien and complex carbohydrates to the meal and fills in the gap when serving smaller portions of a main dish.

Adapted from, Sunset Books, Mexican Cook Book: Simplified techniques 155 classic recipes, 1983.*

Aaron

*My wife has a collection of these quirky 1970’s books covering everything from architecture to home repair. This one looks and feels like it was written by a Mexican homemaker as opposed to a restaurateur–basic “home and gardens” stuff. There’s lots of treasures to be found in old cookbooks such as these and I’m not about to turn my nose up at a book just because it wasn’t authored by a celebrity chef.

Curry in a Hurry (sort of)

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Another day, another weekday meal.

Thursday’s are family split days. My wife heads off to yoga, while my daughter heads off to art class. I’m usually forced to make at least two separate meals–one before 6:00 pm when my daughter leaves and one after 7:00 pm when my wife returns. Keeping with the family tradition of always eating with at least one other family member, I usually prepare the kids an early meal and my wife and I a late one.

After a quick kids’ meal (today’s was fried ramen), I put on a pot of rice and dropped my daughter off at class. After returning home, I poured myself a drink and set to making a curry. I had chicken backs in the refrigerator,  so I went with that as the base.

Recipe: Andhra Pradesh Chicken

Spice Blend:

  • 2 tsp Amchur powder
  • 2 tsp Coriander, ground
  • 2 tsp Cumin, ground
  • 2 tsp Hot Indian paprika (or 1/2 to 1 Tsp dried chilies ground)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1/4 tsp Nutmeg, ground
  • 1 tsp Sea salt
  • 1 Tsp Tumeric, ground

Marinade

  • 3 heaping tsp spice blend
  • 1 Tbs Light cooking oil
  • 1 tsp White vinegar
  • 1 Tbs Brown sugar
  • 1/2 Tbs Sambal oelek

Sauce

  • 4 Medium to large pieces of chicken, skinless bone in
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1″ pc Ginger, peeled and grated
  • 3-4 Tbs light cooking oil (canola)
  • 10 Kari (curry) leaves
  • 2 Medium onions chopped
  • 1/4-1/2 c of finely chopped red bell peppers (or other vegetables)
  • 1-2 Tbs Sambal oelek (optional)
  • 1 15oz Can of diced tomatoes (or 2 lg tomatoes, chopped)
  • 1 c Chicken stock
  • Water
  • 2 Black cardomen pods, lightly crushed
  • 1/2-1 tsp Black pepper, fresh coarsely ground
  • 1 tsp Black mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp Cumin seeds
  • Balance of spice blend

Method:

  1. Prepare spice blend
  2. If using skin-on chicken remove skin and reserve
  3. Mix Marinade ingredients in a small bowl
  4. Combine chicken and marinade in a plastic bag, remove excess air and work the bag to distribute marinade evenly over the chicken and marinate for 1-4 hours
  5. Remove chicken from bag and grill or BBQ over medium heat until fully cooked (I usually do 10 min. bone side down, 10 min. meat side down and if necessary 5 min bone side down)
  6. While chicken is cooking start the sauce
  7. In a wok over a medium-high element heat oil
  8. Add kari leaves, cumin seed, and mustard seed and saute until the begin to crackle (a minute or two)
  9. Add onions and saute until just beginning to brown
  10. Add garlic and finely chopped bell peppers if using and saute one to two minutes more
  11. Add remaining spice blend, grated ginger, sambal, and cardamon pods and stir for one to two minutes until well combined
  12. Add tomatoes and combine
  13. Add a little water and a 1/4 c of the stock and bring to a low boil and cook for approximately 20 minutes adjusting heat as required
  14. Add stock as required during cooking process to keep the sauce consistent
  15. Taste and adjust salt level and acid balance if required (use a very small amount of brown sugar if the sauce is too sour)
  16. Add grilled chicken to the wok, coat it in the sauce, and add fresh ground black pepper
  17. simmer for five minutes, and serve

Notes: I’ve modified this recipe so much from its original form it bears only a passing resemblance to it–originally it called for cooking the chicken in the sauce and adding much more water to it, but I found the recipe above makes for a much more flavourful and richer curry. The above recipe calls for a long marinating time, but mine only sat in the bag for only 20 minutes while I prepared the vegetables–just do your best. I don’t mention it under the methods section, but if you have reserved chicken skin you can add one or two pieces to the sauce during the cooking process to add some depth–just remove it before serving. If you want to drop the heat level, reduce the amount of sambal and/or substitute Spanish or Hungarian paprika for the Indian Paprika (which is very hot). I would still add a 1/2 teaspoon or so of the ground chilies, as the flavour is essential for this dish. Keep in mind that the spice blend shown is more or less a personal preference. You can use garam masala in place of the cinnamon, nutmeg, amchur powder and some of the ground cumin and coriander if that’s your preference as well–I don’t because I find the cloves used in most garam masala to be too much for the chicken.

Tip: Always add fresh ground black pepper to a dish in the last ten minutes or less of cooking to preserve its delicate fresh flavour.

This dish serves four. Pair with a dry Belgium style blond ale (i.e. Fin-de-Monde) or a crisp spicy Indian lager (i.e. Kingfisher).

Adapted from Das Sreedharan, Indian Shortcuts to Success, “Marinated chicken with hot pepper sauce,” pp. 128-129, 2005.

Aaron