When I was growing up in Karachi, fish was the staple diet of our home, like pasta might be for others. We had all kinds of fish: mackerel, lady finger, pomfret, sole fish, Bombay Duck fish, I could go on. Both my parents were born near, or in, the state of Goa, which is located in western India, and has long coastlines that stretch along the Arabian Sea. Goa has many beaches, and lakes and rivers as well, and so fish is found in great abundance. Fishing employs roughly 40,000 people, although recently that market is in decline. With fish being a big part of the cuisine, Goans often take their fish-eating tradition seriously, as my parents did when they migrated to Karachi in pre-partition India.
While there are many dishes cooked with fish, the most common is the Goan fish curry, accompanied often with rice and fried fish. Many spices are blended together to get that perfect aroma that wafts in and out of not just the house it is being cooked in, but the neighbours’ houses as well.
To get a sense of the aromas in our house, imagine a paste of Kashmiri chillies, vinegar and turmeric combined, applied to a pomfret and fried in a pan for your afternoon lunch. Imagine a curry thick, orange-red in colour, and your mother stirring it over the stove, popping fishes in. Now can you smell our kitchen? While boiled rice may not be so appealing to most, the smell of it combined with the curry and fried fish could throw me into a frenzy.
I visited Goa in the early 1980s and had no idea of the extent of the rice and fish curry tradition. My knowledge of this typical Goan food was quite limited to our house. But only upon visiting this beautiful state with its many sandy beaches, coconut trees and little seaside restaurants, did I fully understand the nature of this meal. Among the many invites that we received to dinners and lunches, one particular event sticks out in my mind: the hosts had a table laden with the most delicious baked chicken, other meats roasted, sliced fruits and scrumptious desserts. Once seated, we were all eating hungrily, when, suddenly, I saw a movement at the head of the table where the hosts sat. I looked towards them, and realised they had a pot of rice and fish curry on a small corner table, and were helping themselves to it. So, no matter what the occasion was, there absolutely had to be that delicious rice and fish curry around. How could one survive without it, after all?
Savoury fish swirling in an aromatic red curry will whet your appetite and warm your heart
And this meal is never wasted. Every bite of it is eaten. The next day, leftovers of the curry are thickened over the stove and eaten with hot chapatis off the tawa. Of course, condensed it is spicier and often made my mouth burn and nose run. But I could not stop myself from eating it. Food eaten the next day gets well-marinated, and more seasoned than when it is first cooked. All the spices penetrate deeper into the meal, and make it more mouth-watering than before. If unripened mango is added to the curry, its sourness can send shivers down the spine while eating it. So now I know you’re waiting for the recipe so you can make your own Goan fish curry. I will save the fried fish recipe for another day!
Goan Fish Curry
6-7 medium sized pomfret fish (cleaned, washed, pat dried, halved or whole)
10 red chillies
2 tablespoons coconut powder or fresh ground coconut
4 cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger piece
1 teaspoon peppercorns whole
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon (or less) turmeric
¼ cup tamarind, use less if you think it will make the curry too sour
Salt to taste
3 pinches of sugar
5 small green chillies slit in the middle
4 tablespoons oil, olive oil preferably for the curry
3 tablespoons of oil for frying fish
2.5 tablespoons vinegar
In a bowl (that can accommodate seven pomfrets), mix salt to your taste with vinegar (and half teaspoon turmeric optionally). Toss in the fish to marinate. Keep aside for two hours. Blend or grind the red chillies, coconut powder, garlic, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns, salt (to your taste), and cumin together to a fine paste. This is your curry powder. Soak the tamarind in water for two hours, then remove the seeds, and squeeze the juice out of the tamarind and keep it ready for use. Slice onion and tomatoes and slit green chillies in the middle. Soak coriander in water and rinse a few times until it is clean, and then chop and keep aside.
Remove fish from bowl, take a pan, and heat oil, and fry fish lightly, and not fully. Keep aside. In a pot, put three tablespoons of oil and let it heat. When sufficiently hot, throw in the sliced onions, and brown them. Move the onions to the side of the pot, and put another tablespoon of oil in the centre of the pot and put the ground masala into it and let it fry for a few minutes. Add the tamarind water and pinches of sugar, and stir until somewhat dry. Throw the sliced tomatoes next and fry for a few minutes. You will notice the tomatoes oozing out water, and soon you will have a somewhat thick curry that you have to bring to a boil. You could add some water if you wish and stir. Now, as the curry is boiling, throw in the lightly fried fish, and let it cook for eight minutes. Put a lid on the pot during this time. Throw in the slit green chillies, and let it cook for two minutes. Finally, throw in the coriander and turn the stove off. Now have your boiled rice or fresh chapatis ready, and enjoy your curry!
The writer is an entrepreneur based in the US and interested in travelling, painting, creative writing and food
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 29th, 2019