Updated: Dec 12, 2021
I am probably abusing the word masala (which technically means a mix of spices) in the title of this recipe, but what I am essentially proposing here is a general purpose gravy (in India, the sauce part of a curry is called a gravy, not a sauce) that is particularly suited with fish. A few months ago I gave Bridget a tub of this masala for her to use for her and Martin’s supper and her response was “yummy!”. Yes! I also gave her the recipe… Sorry, Bridget, our secret is now out!
You can use any of the fish I tend to suggest for curries (see, for example, Maacher Jhol, Doi Maach, and Macchi Alleppey) which include gurnard, grey mullet and Dover sole. I would also suggest that conger eel and black bream are fair contenders. Whether you fillet, steak and/or skin your fish pieces, I leave to you.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a lot of fish curry recipes begin by marinating the fish in turmeric and salt (and possibly lemon or lime juice). I have come to understand that this was a cleansing process, in the sense that refrigeration was not abundant in India until relatively recently and the antiseptic properties of turmeric were employed to rid the fish of unwanted nastiness. What has transpired is that, in order to achieve the traditional flavour and texture of the fish curry, we go through the turmeric and salt process of antisepticisation (if that’s a word?) despite now living in a more sterile time. Tradition has its merits.
I love a fish curry, and this recipe was inspired by Atul Kochhar. For me the ingredient that really sets it off is the dried fenugreek leaves (Kasoori Methi), not easy to get hold of but I have put a link below for an online supplier. If you can’t get hold of these a few fenugreek seeds pounded to a powder and included with the rest of the spices would achieve a comparable result.
Be patient! One thing I have learnt from years of cooking Indian food is that onions need a lot of time to cook, and this they like to do over a medium flame, otherwise the outsides will caramelize overly. Equally, the tomatoes need time to break down and integrate into the “gravy”. The payback for your patience is that a curry masala freezes superbly in batches, reheats perfectly in the microwave and only gets better with age. If you want to make a batch, just multiply up all the ingredients for the gravy (but for a very large batch, see note). And you don’t absolutely have to use fish stock – water will do.
Chopped or sliced green chilli and some coriander leaves finish this curry off beautifully, as does a squeeze of lime. And serving is simple - basmati rice, some lime wedges and a vegetable dish and/or a tomato salad are ideal.
Ingredients (makes gravy sufficient for 4 servings)
1 large onion (225g), finely chopped
1½ tsp garlic purée
1½ tsp ginger purée
2 tsp cumin seeds, coarsely ground with a pestle and mortar
2 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
1½ tsp mix of chilli powder (or cayenne pepper) and/or unsmoked paprika, to taste
1½ tsp ground fenugreek leaves
1 small tin (230g) tomatoes
½ tsp salt, or to taste
200ml fish stock
2 tbsp sunflower oil
Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the onions over a medium heat until they are golden (about 10 mins).
Add the ginger and garlic and all the spices and fry for 1-2 minutes (add a splash of water if the spices are at risk of burning) and fry for a further couple of minutes.
Next add the tomatoes and salt to taste and cook until the tomatoes have broken down, using a wooden spoon to help this along.
Finally, add the fish stock and simmer for 20-30 minutes until you have a thick gravy.
Marinate fish pieces in a sprinkling of turmeric and salt (and, optionally, lemon or lime juice) for the about 20 minutes. Reheat the gravy with a splash of water and perhaps a squeeze of lemon/lime juice. Poach the fish in the gravy for just so long as it needs to cook. For a spicier version, include some green chillies, whole or chopped, at this stage. Stir in some chopped coriander and/or garnish with coriander leaves and serve.
Making a very large batch (14-16 servings): Adjust the quantities above to: 600g chopped onion, 2 tbsp garlic purée, 2 tbsp ginger purée, 2 tbsp cumin seeds, 2½ tbsp ground coriander, ½ tbsp ground turmeric, 4 tsp chilli powder/paprika blend, 1½ tbsp fenugreek leaves, 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes, 2 tsp salt (or to taste), 300ml fish stock plus 300ml water, 6 tbsp sunflower oil. The cooking of the onions should take around 30-40 mins done gently and the final simmering may take in excess of an hour for this quantity.
7 December 2021: Added note for making a very large batch and other minor edits
"Kasoori Methi" (dried fenugreek leaves), spicesofindia.co.uk, accessed 20 January 2020: https://www.spicesofindia.co.uk/acatalog/MDH-Peacock-Kasoori-Methi-Fenugreek-Leaves.html#SID=2103