I think I’ve mentioned before that my sister and my favourite fish growing up was white pomfret. This is not a very Bengali thing, pomfret being a sea fish and Bengalis being of the river fish persuasion. But we grew up outside Bengal and particularly loved the quasi-Parsi green masala pomfret my mother made for us as a treat. When I moved to the US I thought my pomfret life was over. And then I discovered it in the large East Asian markets in Los Angeles and again later in Denver. I’ve not yet encountered it in East Asian markets in the Twin Cities—though there are many I have not yet been to—except in the freezers of Indian stores (but I no longer buy frozen fish from India). However, I don’t really miss it since we did find a fish in East Asian markets in Minnesota that is very similar to pomfret: pompano. I cook it in all the ways I cook pomfret: lightly coated in haldi/turmeric and salt and fried to a crisp; fried with onions; made a la my mother’s quasi-Parsi green masala recipe; and most often in this curry inspired by various southwestern coastal preps I’ve had. This is not a traditional recipe—though for all I know I have more or less approximated one by following taste memory. It is very tasty though: best with pompano or pomfret if you can find them, but also excellent with any meaty white fish. As a bonus, our kids love it too. Give it a go; you probably will like it a lot too (I’ve learned not to promise love).
- 2 lbs fish, either 2 large pompano cut into 4-5 pieces each or equivalent in fillets of a meaty white fish such as mahi mahi
- 1 medium red onion, roughly 8 oz, thinly sliced
- 1 tblspn fresh ginger paste
- 1 tblspn fresh garlic paste
- The following ground together into a fine powder: 1 tblspn cumin seed, 1 tblspn coriander seed, 1/2 tblspn black peppercorn, 1/2 tspn fenugreek seed, 3 byadgi chillies or similar (see below), 1 small piece of cinnamon (roughly an inch long), 3/4 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- 1 cup chopped tomato
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 sprig curry leaves
- 1 tblspn sugar (optional)
- 3 Thai chillies, slit
- 2 + 1 tblspns neutral oil of choice
- 1 + 1/2 cup water
- Heat 2 tblspns of oil over medium heat in a pan large enough to hold all the fish in one layer.
- When the oil begins to shimmer, add the thinly sliced onion and saute over medium-low heat till the onions are completely soft and nicely browned
- Add the ginger and garlic pastes and saute for another minute or so till the raw aroma is gone.
- Add the powdered spices, mix in and saute for another minute or so.
- Add tomatoes and salt and saute till the tomatoes have cooked down and the oil begins to separate.
- Add 1 cup water and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Empty the contents of the pan into a blender jar and when cooled slightly, blend to a smooth, velvety consistency.
- Wipe the pan clean and heat the remaining tblspn of oil over medium heat.
- Add the curry leaves and saute briefly till glossy.
- Return the pureed masala to the pan. Rinse out the blender jar with the remaining 1/2 cup of water and pour into the pan.
- Simmer over medium-low heat for another 5 minutes or so or till the oil begins to separate again.
- Add the coconut milk, mix in thoroughly, taste and decide if you want to add the sugar—if so, add it now and simmer for another minute or so.
- Add the fish to the pan in one layer and shake the pan gently to distribute the sauce around it evenly. Spoon some over the fish.
- Add the slit green chillies.
- Cover the pan and simmer over medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes or till the fish is done.
- Serve with steamed rice.
- If you don’t want to mess with the blending you don’t have to. I do it mostly so I don’t have to watch the boys do micro-surgery to get every recognizable bit of onion and tomato off to the sides of their plates. But the velvety texture of the puree does go very well with the coconut milk.
- Speaking of coconut milk, for a variation you can leave it out entirely and just add another cup of water–whether you puree the masala with the tomatoes or not.
- As always you can adjust the heat up or down to your preference. Byadgi chillies are a little hotter than Kashmiri chillies but not very hot per se.
- If pompano is available near you it really makes a difference: it’s a fatty fish with sweet flesh and it complements the flavours of the masala very nicely. But it’ll still be pretty good with any other meaty white fish or for that matter with prawns. I wouldn’t make this with salmon or mackerel though—but that’s really just my preference.
- If you do use pompano (or pomfret) and don’t mind a little extra oil, coat the fish with a bit of turmeric and salt for 30 minutes or so and shallow fry it at the start and remove to a plate, adding it back again at the end but for a shorter amount of time. I rarely bother but it is nice with the skin crisped up a bit.