Deccan Fish Curry
Updated: Apr 6
"There is as much difference between a mackerel and a red mullet as there is between a miller and a bishop."
Baron Léon Brisse (1813-1876)
This is a recipe from Atul Kochhar’s “Simple Indian” and is a favourite of mine (the recipe and the book). He calls it “Deccan Fish Curry” but attributes its origins to the state of Andhra Pradesh. I looked up where exactly the Deccan was and found it to be almost the entirety of the southern half of India. That is, except the coasts. Seemingly “The Deccan” is a shortening for The Deccan Plateau, a high-altitude and mountainous inland region bordered approximately to the north by the Tapti or Godavari Rivers (depending on whose definition is adopted, and there are others – see link) and encompassing large parts of eight of the southern states, amongst which Andhra Pradesh is one.
Having done a bit of research, I am coming to believe that the original version of this dish is called “Chepala Pulusu”. The recipes I found online are very much similar in spirit to this one, even if they all vary to some extent on the combination of spices they include. What the online recipes I read generally agree on is that the curry should be eaten no less than a couple of hours after it has been cooked, or even reheated the next day. Whereas I find a majority of curried dishes are improved with the passage of a day or two, I am reluctant to reheat fish dishes for the compromise in texture that is unavoidable.
Atul Kochhar advocates the use of red mullet in place of the local (freshwater Murrel) fish that would traditionally be used in this dish. I think it is an inspired choice, though I have never tasted the original recipe (and I certainly would given half a chance). This has become one of my go-to treatments for red mullet and one of my all-time favourite fish curries. It’s tangy, sweet, smoky and spicy.
As a rule, I prefer smaller red mullet to larger ones, and I would seldom be inclined to pan-fry a fillet taken from a larger fish. I find them a little muddy in flavour. However, this curry is the perfect vehicle for a large red mullet such is the intensity of the gravy. Gurnard is a worthy alternative to red mullet (as it often is) and is cheaper to buy, and I have used gurnard to make this dish with very satisfactory results.
Red mullet have only just started appearing on the market stall, but at this time of year and for a couple of months to come they are usually regular visitors. As it happens, gurnard are round at this time of year too.
So, if you like red mullet and you like your curries, this is definitely one to try.
If using smaller red mullet, the head can be included in this curry though, with larger fish, it will likely be hard to get the head cooked before having overcooked the rest of the beast. In the case of gurnard, the head almost certainly needs to be omitted given its size relative to the body.
The bone-shy may find this dish a bit of a struggle. If that’s the case, boneless fillets can be substituted for the bone-in steaks, but note that they will cook a little quicker.
Do watch the spicing/heat of this recipe. Atul Kochhar advises that the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh is notably fiery so it is appropriate to have a healthy dose of chilli in this case, and the ingredient quantities below are fairly sympathetic to that cause.
Because the gravy of this curry is fairly thin-textured, plain rice is probably the most appropriate accompaniment, but some bread to mop up the juices is only be recommended.
Deccan Fish Curry
Ingredients (Serves 2)
2 small or 1 large red mullet, scaled, trimmed and gutted (head on or off)
1 garlic clove, crushed to a paste
½ tsp finely grated ginger
½ tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
¼ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
15 curry leaves
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp black mustard seeds
1 medium onion (80-100g), cut in half from root to tip and finely sliced
2 green chillies, thinly sliced (or to taste)
100ml tamarind water (see Note)
1-2 tsp finely chopped coriander leaves
Cut the red mullet through the bone into darns (or steaks). If using smaller fish these should be about 4cm wide, narrower for a larger fish. Put the fish in a bowl, then combine the ginger, garlic, chilli powder, turmeric and salt and rub this all over the fish pieces. Leave to marinate in a cool place or in the fridge for 30 minutes or longer, but make sure the fish is at room temperature before cooking.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and when hot add half the curry leaves and allow them to crisp. Remove them from the pan and set aside for a garnish.
Add the cumin and black mustard seeds and once they start to crackle add the onion and remaining curry leaves and cook until the onion has become golden.
Put the fish pieces and green chillies in the frying pan and cook for a minute or so until the marinade has cooked a little, then gently turn the fish pieces over and repeat.
Add the tamarind water, bring to the boil then simmer very gently for 3-5 minutes until the fish has just cooked, turning once half-way through. A lid can go over the pan if the liquid does not come very far up the fish.
Transfer the fish to serving plates and garnish with the crispy curry leaves and the chopped coriander.
Tamarind water: Different tamarind products from different manufacturers are notoriously varied in their intensity and balance of sweet and sour, so some judgement is required. There are two ways to create a 'tamarind water' depending on whether you are using a jar of tamarind paste/purée or a block of tamarind pulp. With tamarind paste or purée, put 3 tbsp in a measuring jug and make up to 100ml with water, stirring well. If using tamarind pulp, break off a 1 tbsp piece, pour over 200ml hot water and leave to dissolve for around half an hour. Break the pulp up with your fingers then pass the resulting liquid through a fine sieve, rubbing the pulp well. This should yield about 150ml tamarind water.
"Simple Indian", Atul Kochhar (2004), pp. 43: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Indian-Atul-Kochhar/dp/1849498938
"Deccan Plateau", Wikipedia, accessed 18 March 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deccan_Plateau