Here is a variation on a dish I make on the regular but which I have not gotten around to posting a recipe of yet. Why do I say “a variation on a dish I make on the regular”? Well, because that’s what home cooking is, or at least what it is to me. I rarely measure ingredients, add more or less (or none) of some things on different occasions, and generally improvize each dish each time I make it. In that sense the recipes I post on the blog are lies or at least not accurate representations of how I actually cook. Recipes suggest exactness but I’m not a very exact person. A recipe I think should be treated as a general roadmap: you don’t want to deviate so far from it that you end up somewhere completely different but you don’t need to have it dictate every stop along the way either. At least you don’t want it to dictate one fixed route for every destination.
This roadmap analogy is a bit shaky and so I will now abandon it and say only that the best recipes are those that allow reasonably confident cooks to create their own versions of them; it’s by doing that that one becomes a confident cook. And when you’re dealing with “traditional food” it’s important to remember that there is rarely a single recipe, a single way to make something. What you may have is a more or less general flavour profile for a dish, a more or less general texture or consistency, certain ingredients that are or are not used, certain techniques, but no two home kitchens will make things in exactly the same way. Home cooking is not restaurant cooking and should not aspire to that kind of reproducibility or to the stupid tech-bro framing of “The Perfect X” that is its tedious logical endpoint. That’s my view anyway.
What it means in this case is that this is a recipe that seeks to indicate a family resemblance rather than an exact snapshot. If you make it exactly like this it will come out well; but if you change a few ingredients or their ratios, well, you might be doing what I’ll do the next time I make it. On the other hand, if you change things and don’t like the result, well, then you shouldn’t have fucked with it, should you?
- 2 lbs firm white fish, cut into 8 pieces (mahi mahi is what I use)
- 1/2 tspn black mustard seeds
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 3-5 green chillies, slit lengthwise
- 1 medium red onion, sliced (not too thin)
- 1 tspn or so of freshly grated ginger
- 3/4 tspn or so of freshly grated garlic
- The following toasted lightly in a tava/skillet, cooled and then ground to a coarse powder: 3-5 dried red chillies, 1 tspn coriander seed, 1 tspn cumin seed, 1/2 tspn black peppercorns, 2 small pieces of cinnamon
- 1/2 tspn turmeric powder
- 1 tblspn or so of tamarind, soaked in 1 cup of water and then squeezed thoroughly by hand to extract every bit of tamarindy goodness
- 1/2 tblspn of jaggery or brown sugar
- Salt to taste
- Grapeseed oil or similar neutral oil
- Heat a tablespoon or two of oil over medium heat and add the mustard seeds.
- When the mustard seeds start popping add the curry leaves, slit green chillies, sliced onion and grated ginger and garlic. Stir over medium heat till the onions begin to brown.
- Add the powdered masala, the turmeric and the salt and stir-fry for another minute or so.
- Strain the soaked tamarind water into the pan pressing down to get as much of the tamarind flavour as you can in there. Mix and cook over medium-low heat till the the oil begins to separate.
- Add the fish pieces and the jaggery/sugar and stir gently to combine.
- Add 2 cups water, mix gently, cover and simmer till the fish is done (about 15 minutes).
- If you’d like a thicker consistency, leave the lid slightly ajar or uncover the pan for the last five minutes.
- Serve with steamed rice or quinoa or even over plain upma.
- This recipe is my attempt to recreate the flavours of some southwestern coastal fish dishes I’ve had. It may well accidentally resemble a more traditional prep closely but if it doesn’t, don’t get on my case: I’m not representing it as a traditional dish of any particular community.
- I sometimes add some Sichuan peppercorn to the spice mix; sometimes I add a tiny bit of fenugreek seed.
- You can adjust the heat up or down via the green and red chillies.
- You don’t want this to be a very thick gravy but how thin you make it is up to you.
- If you do want a richer gravy or just for a mellower version, add 3/4 cup of coconut milk for the last five minutes.
- Please don’t use tamarind concentrate except as a last resort—that stuff is vile. Go to any Indian grocery (or a Thai grocery) and look for tamarind blocks. Many Indian groceries in the US now carry “wet” tamarind blocks—wet tamarind is much easier to get extracts from: you barely need to soak it and you don’t need to soak it in hot water. Unlike the dried tamarind blocks, I do store these in the fridge after opening them.
- And remember: tamarind is acidic. You don’t want to make this in a seasoned cast iron or carbon steel pan.