When I was a kid, my grandmother always tried to make me eat palak (spinach) by promising that her fantastic fish curry would follow. Maka naka! I don’t want it, was always my angry response. Usually, it didn’t work. My grandmother—a simple, wonderful woman who was never educated but tried to teach herself to read, painstakingly trying to figure out letter by letter—had not raised 10 children by giving in to tantrums.
I wish I could tell her that palak is today the only vegetable I don’t mind eating (not by itself, of course, but reasonably leavened with keema or chicken).
I digress. My grandmother’s curries were tremendously more complex than the blink-and-it’s-done curry that I’m going to tell you about. Goan fish curries can get quite intricate, with lots of grinding and pounding of spices, onions and vinegars.
Must have: Be it Goan fish curries or drinks, kokum is a staple ingredient. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint; Courtesy Goa Portugesa
But I don’t know many people who have the time and patience to run through these complexities. When I have more time, I’ll run you through some of the more difficult curries. For now, let me just say that your guests will find it hard to tell that the quick curry has been made in 10 minutes, with coconut milk from a can.
However, you will need some vital ingredients. My family—like every other I know from the Konkan coast of Maharashtra and Goa—cannot conceive of a fish curry without kokum.
I have never run a kitchen without a stock of kokum, even when I lived in the US for two years back in the 1990s. For those of you who don’t know what that is, let me tell you that it is sublime: tangy, robust and extremely good for digestion. Kokum is a fruit, found almost exclusively along the west coast. The part we actually use in fish curries is the dark purple, dried, tangy rind of the kokum fruit (scientific name: Garcinia indica).
I am always happy to spring out of my bed and make an early trip to my fishwallah at INA market in Delhi. I feel like a child in a candy store. I may not buy everything, but I love looking at all the fresh fish, peering at new arrivals and generally watching who buys what. My fishwallah stocks a variety of seafood for his astonishingly diverse clientele: karimeen for Malayalis, ilish for Bengalis, calamari for Italians… Our separate lives come together every weekend in that slushy, smelly little corner of paradise.
I was particularly delighted when I saw a lone packet of fresh kokum at an INA spice shop a couple of months ago. I bought it, of course. That was a surprise. I’ve always got my stock from Mumbai.
Even after all these years of cooking fish, I am always anxious because fish is like no other meat. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse said in the 6th century BC, ruling a large kingdom is like cooking a small fish.
Meaning: Handle gently and never overdo it.
Goan fish curry
(cooking time: 10 minutes)
At least 15 pods of garlic
K tsp turmeric
3 tsps red chilli powder
1 can of coconut milk
Handful of kokum
Salt to taste
Drop the crushed garlic in oil that’s hot but not smoking. Stir in medium heat. When the garlic begins to brown, throw in the red chilli powder and turmeric. Stir for a minute. Reduce heat and empty a can of coconut milk (freely available at any major grocery store, or use coconut powder. If you have the time, squeeze it fresh from grated coconut). Stir so that coconut milk takes on the colour of the spices. When the curry starts to heat, add in a handful of kokum (available at INA market in Delhi and every market in Mumbai). Ensure the heat is low. Add half a kg of fresh fish (no need to marinate). Add salt. Shake the vessel to move the fish pieces around. Don’t poke around with a spoon. It should be ready to eat in 6-7 minutes.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is the managing editor of the Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at email@example.com