Red Masala Fish

I’ve written before about how I came to start cooking with pompano as a substitute for white pomfret, the somewhat un-Bengali fish my sister and I have loved since our childhood. Pomfret is actually available quite easily now in freezers in Indian groceries in the US. However, as I’ve also said before, I stopped buying frozen Indian fish a while ago, having grown increasingly dubious about the ecological cost of feeding the nostalgia of the diaspora. Luckily, pompano, easily found in Southeast Asian stores in the Twin Cities, is very similar. Like pomfret it has firm but mild and sweet flesh which goes really well in spicy and non-spicy curries alike, and it’s also very good simply marinated and fried. I assume it comes to the local markets from Florida—and given the affordable cost I’d assume it’s probably farmed. At Shuang Hur on University Avenue in St. Paul you can even have the fishmongers clean and cut it for you. I prefer to do that myself at home so as to cut it exactly how I want it.

The recipe that follows is one of my favourite ways to make it. Though, as I’ve said before, don’t get taken in by the seeming exactness of the recipe: I paid attention this time and actually measured things; most of the time I eyeball everything; sometimes I slice the onions thinner or thicker; sometimes I use tamarind instead of tomato; sometimes I add more or less of some spices or leave some out completely. Play with it and see how you like it best. And you can make it with more than pompano. If you can’t find any, or the thought of cooking and eating whole fish makes you green in the gills, use any meaty white fish instead (mahi mahi or swordfish or marlin would all be good choices).


  • 2 large pompano cut into three or four pieces each or 2 lbs of fillets of mahi mahi or similar.
  • 2 sprigs curry leaves.
  • 1 large red onion, sliced.
  • 1 tblspn freshly grated ginger.
  • 1/2 tblspn freshly grated garlic.
  • 1/2 tspn turmeric.
  • The following toasted lightly, cooled and ground to a coarse powder: 1 large Kashmiri chilli, 3 hot dried chillies, 1/2 tspn black peppercorn, 3/4 tspn Sichuan peppercorn, 1 tspn cumin, 1/2 tspn coriander seed, 2-3 small pieces of cinnamon, a pinch of methi/fenugreek seed.
  • 1.5 cups tomato puree.
  • 3 hot green chillies, slit lengthwise.
  • A pinch of sugar.
  • Salt.
  • Oil.
  • 2 cups water.


  1. Heat oil over medium heat n a large pan that will be able to hold all the fish in one layer.
  2. Add the curry leaves and onions and saute for about 5 minutes till the onions have begun to brown.
  3. Add the ginger and garlic and saute for another minute or two.
  4. Add the turmeric and ground masalas and saute for another minute or two.
  5. Add the tomatoes, sugar and salt and cook down to a thick sludge with oil separating.
  6. Add the water and mix thoroughly and bring back up to a high simmer..
  7. Slide the fish into the pan, gently shaking the pan and carefully scooping some of the gravy over and around it all.
  8. Top with the fresh green chillies, cover the pan and cook for 15-20 minutes till done. (The gravy/sauce at the end should be thick but easily pourable.)
  9. Serve with steamed rice or quinoa.


  1. Toasting the spices is optional though it does add some complexity to the flavour. It’s best done on a cast iron pan. Heat it over medium-low heat, add the whole spices and stir with a wooden spatula till just aromatic (the chillies should puff up slightly but not darken). Add the fenugreek seeds last as they’ll scorch easily. Cool completely on a plate before powdering (I use a coffee grinder for all my spice powdering).
  2. As always, you can adjust the heat up or down to your liking.
  3. You can marinate the fish with some turmeric, chilli powder and salt and shallow-fry it first. An additional step and less healthy but you might like it more that way.
  4. For a richer, mellower version cook as above but add a cup of coconut milk at the very end, bringing it back up to a simmer for a few minutes before taking it off the heat.
  5. Or for a drier and more intense version cook the sauce down but stop before adding water. Instead put the fish in a baking dish, smear the sludge over, cover with foil and bake at 350º till done.
  6. As noted above, you can use tamarind as the souring agent instead of tomato. Add a cup and a half of water to a tablespoon’s worth of block tamarind and get a thick extract.
  7. If using pompano make sure to eat everything in the head—some of the tastiest bits of meat are in there and the eyes are particularly good (trust me).

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