Fish or Prawn Molee
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"In my country there is an abundance of cinnamon, cloves, pepper and precious stones. What I seek from thy country is gold, silver, coral and scarlet".
The Samoothiri of Kozhikode to Vasco de Gama (1498)
This is the simplest fish curry you will ever make! It takes less than 10 minutes to cook and is totally authentic.
It's a Keralan dish which I was first made aware of by the genius himself, Keith Floyd, in his TV series "Floyd's India". I cannot exaggerate how much that series, almost 20 years ago, influenced my adventures in Indian cuisine. The dish was, in fact, cooked by a guest chef, an M. A. Rasheed, executive chef of the Taj Malabar hotel in Cochin. I later travelled to Kerala with my copy of the book that accompanied the series, stayed at the Taj Malabar, and arranged a meeting with Chef Rasheed during which he educated me on many things Indian cuisine. I asked him to sign the picture in the book of him standing with Floyd - I think he thought I was more barmy than the great man!
Chef Rasheed designed a dinner menu, there and then, for me and my then girlfriend. To begin the meal he prepared the dish he had demonstrated on the Floyd programme, and that had so captured my imagination - a prawn dish called "Prawn Molee". He had told me during our chat that traditionally a "Molee" was a fish dish but, with the advancement of cuisine, as we witness the World over, prawns had become a more modern-day alternative and, indeed, to great effect. In fact you can find recipes for "Fish Molee" in almost any cookbook focusing on the cuisine of Kerala, for example, "Modern Kerala Dishes" and "Flavours of the Spice Coast" (both by Mrs K. M. Mathew), but also in Keralan/South Indian restaurants, notably the fabulous establishment, Ganapati, in Peckham, south-east London. That ubiquitous a Keralan dish is it!
Gurnard is the ideal fish for this recipe as it is mild in flavour and robust in texture. And it's also appearing on the market stall at the moment. I have also made this dish using Dover sole (available right now as well) with great results and would also make it with John Dory. In their absence, there is no reason not to use cod, except for the fact that it will tend to break up somewhat in the latter stages of cooking.
This is a light, fragrant and aromatic curry, reminiscent in a way of something you might find further east, for example, in Thailand. I suspect you'll make this more than once...
This really is terribly easy to make. The only tricky ingredient to get hold of is the fresh curry leaves (see link), and they are not essential, but I cannot advocate the use of dried ones. Once all the ingredients are prepped-up the cooking genuinely takes less than 10 minutes. In fact, it would be for the worse were the cooking to take longer, as the fish would be overcooked.
As mentioned above I first encountered this dish as a treatment for prawns and, with the discovery of King prawns cultivated in the UK, have made this dish several times recently using those.
Coconut oil has become rather trendy in recent
years and therefore widely available. Whereas I used not be a fan of coconut oil and preferred to use just sunflower or vegetable oil, that has now changed and it is without question the route to a truly authentic result.
The quantity of coconut milk is approximate for the simple reason that different brands have different consistencies. Start with a little less coconut milk than you might think as you can always add a little more if necessary. The coconut cream is totally optional but, if used, does create a slightly heavier consistency and a richer flavour, though I rarely include it when making this dish.
Fish or Prawn Molee
Ingredients (Serves 2)
300-400g gurnard (or alternative) fillets, skinned and cut into 1½" chunks, or 240-300g King or Tiger prawns (weight without shell)
¼ tsp turmeric
Salt to taste
Sunflower, vegetable oil or coconut oil
1 small onion (approx 100g), cut into fine half-rings
3 green chillies, coarsely chopped (or quantity to taste)
A handful of curry leaves (not essential)
1 heaped tbsp fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
125ml (approx) coconut milk
2 tomatoes, quartered
1-2 tbsp coconut cream (optional)
Put the fish pieces in a bowl, sprinkle over the turmeric and salt to taste, rub in well and leave aside for 20 minutes.
Heat the oil in a sauté or chef's pan (a wok would also do) and sauté the onions green chillies and curry leaves (if using) until the onions become translucent (not caramelised), then add the ginger and garlic and cook for around a minute.
Add the fish pieces and allow to cook to seal the outside.
Lower the heat, then add the coconut milk. Gently bring the liquid just to the boil, then add the tomatoes and simmer gently for about 5 minutes until the fish is just cooked and the gravy has thickened somewhat. The fish may require turning once or twice during this time.
If using, stir in the coconut cream, then serve with plain rice.
29/04/2021: Broadened recipe scope to include prawns as an alternative to fish. Changed commentary on coconut milk as my tastes have change.
"Floyd's India", Keith Floyd (2001): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Floyds-India-Keith-Floyd/dp/0007160054
"Modern Kerala Dishes", Mrs K. M. Mathew (2000), pp. 6: https://www.amazon.in/Modern-Kerala-Dishes-Mrs-K-M-Mathew/dp/B007E4XCP0
"Flavours of the Spice Coast", Mrs K. M. Mathew (2000), pp. 27: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Flavours-Spice-Coast-K-M-Mathew/dp/0143029002