Sour Fish Curry with Coconut Milk and Kokum


I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that pompano is one of our very favourite fish in the US. Perhaps because it’s not a fish that lends itself to being sold in fillet form, it’s not available in mainstream grocery stores—not that I’ve seen anyway. But if you have Vietnamese or other stores catering to Southeast Asian customers in your area chances are good that you will find frozen or thawed pompano there. Frozen is, of course, better as that way you won’t need to cook it up right away—unless you live right by where pompano is brought to shore it’s coming to your store frozen so if you buy it thawed and bung it in your freezer when you get home you’ll be freezing and then thawing it a second time. So if it’s not frozen when you buy it I recommend cooking it up the same day or the next. And I highly recommend this recipe when you do. Don’t have pompano? Fillets of a mild white fish such as mahi mahi or even orange roughy will do. In a pinch, so will salmon. If you have access to pomfret that would work just as well in place of the pompano.

The other preferred ingredient here is kokum as the souring agent. If you have a well-stocked Indian grocery near you in the US—especially one that caters to a South Indian clientele—you should be able to locate some kokum. It’s also available on Amazon—you want the “wet” version [affiliate link]. If not, substitute tamarind or even vinegar. It won’t be the same but it’ll be quite tasty anyway.

Ingredients

  • 6 pieces of pompano: clean and cut two whole pompano into 5 pieces each; use the head, tail and one of the three belly pieces for this recipe (reserve the four other belly pieces from each fish for rava-fried fish—see below). Or six medium white fish fillets, about 1.5 lbs total
  • 1 sprig curry leaves
  • 1 medium red onion, thickly sliced
  • 1 large clove of garlic and an equivalent amount of ginger mashed together
  • 3/4 tspn haldi/turmeric
  • The following lightly toasted, cooled and ground to a fine powder: 1 tspn each coriander seed, cumin seed and black peppercorn; 1/2 tspn methi/fenugreek seed; 3-5 dried byadgi or Kashmiri chillies [affiliate links]
  • 1 tspn jaggery/brown sugar
  • 5-7 petals of wet kokum soaked in two cups of hot water for at least 20 minutes [affiliate link]
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • 2-3 Thai chillies, slit lengthwise
  • Salt
  • Oil (grapeseed or similar)

Preparation

  1. Heat 2-3 tblspns of oil over medium heat in a wide saucepan that can comfortably hold all the fish.
  2. When it shimmers add the curry leaves.
  3. As soon as the curry leaves become glossy add the onions and saute, stirring often till beginning to brown.
  4. Add the ginger and garlic and saute till the raw aroma goes away.
  5. Add the haldi and the ground masalas, mix in and saute for another minute or so.
  6. Add the fish, mix gently and turn a few times carefully.
  7. Add the kokum with its soaking liquid, the salt and the jaggery, bring to a high simmer and cook covered for 10 minutes or so.
  8. Uncover the pan, add the coconut milk (do NOT add the coconut milk to the covered pan, you moron), mix in gently, top with the slit green chillies, bring back to a high simmer, cover and cook for another 10 minutes or so till the fish is done and the fat separates in the gravy.
  9. Taste and adjust for salt and serve with steamed rice.

Notes

  1. Again, neither tamarind nor vinegar will be an exact substitute for mild, floral sourness of kokum but the recipe will work just as well. If using tamarind soak one tspn’s worth of block tamarind in 2 cups of water and extract as much pulp as you can into a thin solution. If using vinegar, use 1 tblspn of a dark/sweet vinegar (balsamic/sherry/Chinkiang) and two cups of water.
  2. The dried byadgi chillies here are mostly there for colour; the heat comes from the pepper and slit green chillies. If you want to make this hotter use hotter dried red chillies or up the peppercorn. Feel free to play with the proportions of the dry spices as well.
  3. This is, of course a relative of/variation on several other fish recipes I’ve posted. See here, here and here, for example.
  4. In terms of regional origin, this is yet another recipe inspired by the flavour profiles of various southwestern coastal dishes but it doesn’t follow any traditional form (though it may, again, hit upon one by accident).
  5. I mentioned rava (semolina)-fried fish above. That is basically a by-product of pompano curries in our house. I make a curry with most of the fish and fry up a few pieces to have at a separate meal with dal. Rava-coated fried fish is a Konkani/southwest coastal thing. My version is not canonical but if there’s interest I can post a bonus recipe for that this weekend.


 

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