Malai curry is a quintessential Bengali dish of prawns cooked in coconut milk (in this version, with potatoes). It involves very few spices and is very easy to make. Doubtless, there are many variations among Bengali families. This recipe is from one of my aunts, one of the most redoubtable cooks in the extended family (my mother’s version is far less canonical). In Bengal it is common to make this with larger, head-on prawns. Head-on prawns/shrimp are always better because a) the more shell the more intense the prawn flavour, b) the texture of the meat is always better and c) the roe and other goo in the head both improve the flavour immeasurably and give the gravy a richer, red colour. I do make malai curry with head-on shrimp from East Asian stores from time to time but I try to avoid that as far as possible: given all the dubious stuff surrounding the harvesting of seafood in the region—from environmental concerns to the maltreatment of workers—without more knowledge of provenance it’s an ethical grey area. If only stores that did supply the provenance would stock head-on shrimp! Anyway, when I do succumb to temptation it’s usually for malai curry.
The etymology of the name of the dish is not settled. Some people think “malai” refers to cream, as in coconut cream. Others, subscribe to the notion that it may refer to Malay origins or similarities. At any rate, it doesn’t taste like a Malay dish. Whatever the source of the name, it’s very tasty. You do need good coconut milk. Fresh squeezed is always best but if you live in the real world then the best commercial version you can find is best. I always recommend the Aroy-D tetrapaks over anything in a can (including Aroy-D’s own canned coconut milk). If you can’t find it locally, Amazon sells it (full disclosure: that’s an affiliate link).
- 1 lb shrimp, cleaned, coated with a bit of salt and turmeric and set aside.
- 1/2 lb potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3/4 cup pureed red onion
- 1/2 tspn fresh ginger paste (puree it with the onion)
- 1-2 large dry cassia leaves (tez patta)
- 3-4 cloves
- A piece of cinnamon about 2″ by 1/2″
- 1/2 tspn turmeric powder
- 1/2-1 tspn red chilli powder
- 2 cups coconut milk
- Pinch sugar
- Salt to taste
- Grapeseed or other “white” oil (i.e don’t use mustard oil)
- Sliced green chillies for garnish (optional)
- Heat a tblspn or so of oil in a wok and stir-fry the shrimp till they lose the raw grey colour and set aside in a bowl.
- Add a bit more oil if necessary and stir-fry the diced potatoes for five minutes or so. Set aside with the shrimp.
- Add more oil and add the whole spices.
- As soon as they turn aromatic and before the tez patta darkens too much, add the onion-ginger puree and saute over medium heat till the raw aroma disappears.
- Add the turmeric, red chilli powder and salt and saute for a few more minutes.
- Add the coconut milk and sugar, bring to a gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer.
- Add the shrimp and potatoes, cover and cook at a simmer till done (about 15 minutes or so).
- A few minute before taking it off the heat, throw the sliced green chillies in.
- Eat with steamed rice.
- While I do like to make this on the hotter side, it doesn’t need to be very hot. I use byadgi chillies (available at most South Asian groceries in larger metro areas in the US) which are both hot and impart a rich colour. If you want it milder you could use Kashmiri chillies.
- If you’re in the US and aren’t in the habit of extracting your own coconut milk I really would recommend the Aroy-D tetrapak coconut milk. The canned stuff is too cloying and throws off the balance of flavours here.
- Sauteeing pureed red onion can be a delicate affair: it can turn bitter/metallic very easily on hitting the heat. A tip I received some years ago on an Indian cooking forum, which has served me well for dishes involving pureed onion, is to nuke the onion for a minute in a microwave before pureeing it.