You say tomato, yuck? I say 60 minutes in the pool with delicious bingeing and no weight gain.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a bit rueful watching the parade of lithe, toned bodies on display all this month, all sinew, power and passion. Regret does not come easy to me, but I felt a gentle tinge for the first time in my otherwise happy life as I asked myself: Could I not have been more athletic earlier in life?

Wonder gravy: The trick is to use fresh tomatoes, always, and fresh spices and herbs. This fish takes only a teaspoon of olive oil. Samar Halarnkar

The big change really came only after I turned 40. I was 86kg, and my lower back had broken down for the fourth time. Gradually, I had clawed my way back to good health through a combination of rigorous back exercises and swimming. It wasn’t smooth sailing. My weight ballooned again because I ate vast quantities of food after swimming. Gradually, I learned to mix it up, combining swimming with walking, light weights in the gym, and, later, running. Making my own food helped enormously. I learnt to sense what my brain craved (pork, mutton, brain) and balance it with what my body needed (fish, chicken, greens). I am happy to report that thanks to my constant fiddling in the kitchen, I’ve now settled into a reasonable, healthy diet without ever consulting a dietitian.

My latest challenge came just before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. My back had its latest setback, and my orthopaedic surgeon—who, over the years, has guided me through most of my lumbar issues (if you’re reading this Dr Magazine, thank you)—suspended my running. He was never a big fan of running anyway, so he was unimpressed when I protested. Swimming, I said, was boring and just did not deliver the benefits that running did. “So?" he frowned, unimpressed. “Swim for 1 hour, or 2."

After a great burst of effort, I am happy to report that in just over a month, I gained enough stamina to swim 60 minutes freestyle without stopping. Yet I haven’t gained weight and I feel fitter and lighter than ever before.

Since there is no way I can cut back on dead animals, I started fiddling with the ingredients. Like my family, fish is my No. 1 option. Pork or mutton follow. But the fish option isn’t easy for the Halarnkars because like all coastal folk, we like it fried or soaked in a calorie-heavy coconut milk curry.

I have found a powerful new ally, the humble tomato. I’ve been using flavoured purées to great effect with grilled chicken, pork or mutton chops, but as the recipe below indicates, I’ve now cracked the really big one—fish.

This is significant because as much as I made other meats healthier, I could never get myself to abandon coconut milk (I still cannot; I’ve just reduced its use) in fish. If you didn’t already know, the humble tomato—you do know it’s a fruit, not a vegetable?—is vastly underrated. It delivers an array of health benefits, the most well known being its store of lycopene, a cancer-fighting agent. Science regularly uncovers more properties in the tomato. It also helps in fighting heart disease and lowering levels of cholesterol.

But how much taste can you impart to a curry that’s based on lightly done, puréed tomatoes? As I discovered, rather a lot. The trick is to infuse the purée with fresh spices and herbs. And never use canned tomato purée. At least I don’t. Canned purée has a distinct tinge of preservatives. It takes no more than 5 minutes to make a purée, but the pleasures of a fresh tomato-based sauce or curry last much longer.

After incorporating tomatoes into my meats, I am happy to report that my efforts to tone up post-45 without dieting are bearing fruit, so to say. As before, swimming has indeed increased my appetite, but increased quantities of salad, fruit, nuts and the great tomato keep my weight stable. It’s too late for me to become an athlete, but, despite my battles with my bulges and my back, I feel lighter and healthier than I’ve ever been. The 1-hour-swim barrier will fall, maybe even as you read this, and one day I will start running again.

Baked fish in tomato curry

Serves 2-3


1/2 kg fish (I used black pomfret, sliced long, with bone)

4 large red tomatoes

Juice of one lime

1 tsp olive oil

1 tsp garlic paste

1-inch piece of galangal (Thai ginger) or normal ginger, finely chopped

Salt to taste

Roast and grind the following

4 dried red chillies

3 cloves

1 star anise

1 black cardamom

(I used a mortar pestle to pound the roasted spices. You can use a food processor, but that will make the flavour more intense)


Marinate the fish in salt and lime juice. Place in an oven dish, cover with foil and bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. While the fish is baking, prepare the purée. Chop the tomatoes into half and purée in a food processor. In a large, non-stick pan, gently heat the olive oil. Lightly sauté the garlic and galangal. Add the purée, stir in the roasted, pounded spices. Stir for around 5 minutes till the spices blend with the purée. Add salt, if required (the fish already has salt).

Remove fish from oven, drain some of the liquid if you wish and pour the spiced purée over the fish. Discard the foil and bake for another 10 minutes. Ensure you do not overcook the fish.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at He is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times.

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