If you follow my cooking posts you’ve probably cottoned on to the fact that I really like pompano. I’ve already posted a number of recipes featuring it that are all generally variations on a central delicious theme. The recipe I have for you today can also be placed in that framework but it has some elements that take it more directly into the borderlands between South Indian and Thai flavours. This came about because when we came back from Los Angeles at the start of the month I had pompano in the freezer that I had a hankering to eat but I did not have curry leaves or green chillies—both of which are important in the South Indian’ish preparations I usually make with it. I decided instead to just marinate and fry the pompano whole and serve it that way along with dal and rice. But then once I’d marinated the fish and coated it with sooji/rava/cream of wheat to crisp it up I began to think of the lovely whole, fried fish we’ve had in Thai restaurants, served on rich curries or sauces; and as I did have lime leaves in the freezer I was soon on my way to improvizing a hybrid dish that came out rather well. I’m calling it Indo-Thai fish curry.
You can make it with whole rava-fried pompano a la the recipe below, or more simply as described in the notes. For those who are interested in the whole fried fish version but may be nervous about going about it, I’ve also included below a gallery showing the steps for marinating and frying the fish. And, as I say, the notes contain directions for making it without the dramatic frying of the whole fish (though it does also make for a dramatic presentation). I’ve made it this way too with salmon after our return. I can tell you it will be very tasty either way*. Give it a go and let me know what you think.
For the fish:
- 2 pompano, cleaned but otherwise left whole
- To marinate the fish:1 tspn cumin seeds, powdered, 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder, 1/2 tspn mild chilli powder, 1/2 tspn salt
- Vinegar (as needed)
- 4-6 tblspns sooji/rava/cream of wheat
For the curry:
- 1 medium red onion, sliced
- 1 heaped tspn freshly pounded ginger
- 1 tspn freshly pounded garlic
- 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- The following ground together into a coarse powder: 1 tspn cumin seeds, 1 tspn black peppercorn, 3/4 tspn coriander seeds, 1/s tspn methi/fenugreek seeds, 1/2 tspn Sichuan peppercorn, 3-5 dried red chillies, 1 star anise
- 1/2 cup diced tomato
- 1 cup thick coconut milk
- 1 tblspn jaggery/dark brown sugar
- 1 tblspn fish sauce
- 3 makrut lime leaves
- 2 cups water fresh off the boil
- Oil—grapeseed, avocado or another oil with a high smoke point.
- 1 tblspn chopped dhania/cilantro for garnish (optional)
- Cut lots of slits parallel to each other on both sides of each pompano, being careful not to cut through the spine.
- Mix the marinade ingredients with enough vinegar to make a thin paste and massage it into the slits on the fish. Rub any excess paste into the cavity.
- Sprinkle the sooji /rava liberally over the fish and set them aside while you make the curry.
- Heat 2-3 tblspns of oil in a medium saucepan and when it shimmers add the sliced onion.
- Saute the onion, stirring often till it begins to turn a dark brown.
- Add the ginger and garlic and saute till the raw aroma is gone.
- Add the haldi and powdered masalas and saute, stirring all the while for another minute.
- Add the tomato and the salt and saute, stirring constantly till the tomato has cooked down completely and you have a thick aromatic sludge in the pan (mmm aromatic sludge).
- Add the water, mix in and cook at a high simmer till reduced by half.
- Add the coconut milk, jaggery, lime leaves and fish sauce, mix in and cook, uncovered, at a simmer for another 7-10 minutes till the oil separates. Turn the heat off, cover the pan and set aside.
- In a large wok place enough oil to come up almost all the way up the fish and turn the heat on to medium.
- Check that the oil is ready by dropping a pinch of sooji into it—if it begins to sizzle/crisp up immediately it’s ready.
- Fry the fish one at a time. Pick one up by the tail, shake it lightly just to get excess rava that has not adhered to the masala off and lay the fish down gently in the hot oil. Depending on the size of the fish fry it for 4-5 minutes on each side. Place the crisply fried fish on paper towels to soak up excess oil.
- Reheat the curry till it’s back at a simmer and pour into a wide, shallow serving dish that can hold both whole fish.
- Place the fish on top of the curry, garnish with cilantro (if using) and serve immediately with steamed rice.
- If you haven’t fried whole fish before it can seem daunting. It used to seem very daunting to me. But it’s easier than it looks. Heat the oil over medium heat and do the sooji check a couple of times till you’re sure it’s hot enough. When you add the fish, hold it by the tail, set the head down first and then gently lay the rest of the body down. If you lay it down gently no oil will splash; it’s good if the tail sits a little outside the oil as it’s easiest to turn it over by picking it up again by the tail.
- Now if the thought of this still makes you nervous you can skip the marinating, coating and frying parts. Just add the fish—either whole or cut into 3-4 pieces each—to the saucepan (you’ll obviously need a larger pan if you go this route) after you’ve added the water in step 9 for the curry. Then first cook it covered for 10 minutes or so before uncovering to reduce the sauce and proceeding with the next step. And if you’re going this route you can also substitute fillets of salmon or other fish of choice for the pompano (maybe 1.5 lbs cut into 6 pieces).
- The first photograph in the gallery above is from the first time I made this—on that occasion I used as much tomato as coconut milk. I prefer it with less tomato, which is how I made it as pictured in the photograph below which features salmon cooked in the sauce.
- You can make this hotter if you like either by upping the dried chillies in the powdered masala or by adding a few slit Thai chillies along with the coconut milk.
- And if your coconut milk is very sweet you may want to hold back on the jaggery or brown sugar.
*Though full disclosure: when I put this on the table the younger child pronounced, and I quote, “I don’t want it, it stinks!”. Don’t worry: he has since been removed from my will.