Deftly flipping the two-inch chunks of pale pink fish fillets, without a fancy $25 fish spatula, she was unable to answer my question regarding the kind of fish with which she was cooking. The quest to find the source of the fish or assure oneself that it’s a sustainable species is not on the forefront of thoughts of a housewife and cook living in India.
The fish consumed there is by default sustainable and fresh, natural and not well-travelled. Fish isn’t purchased at a counter inside a supermarket and bagged with crushed ice. In fact, they reside temporarily in the open-air fish markets that are on every neighborhood corner in cities like Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and Panjim in Goa, close in proximity to their final destination: the cast-iron skillet, or in modern homes, the pricy 9000 rupee-worth Calphalon nonstick skillets.
Imagining a picturesque and colorful bustling market with the smell of the ocean air wafting through? No, that’s not what these markets really look like. Driving by, you wouldn’t even notice them—they are that small. Seems that some of these neighborhood markets only sold a few dozen fish and nothing else: no razorneck clams, no crimson-fleshed salmon, no rusty lump crabmeat in plastic tubs, or scallops that look like miniature pillows on beds of ice. The beauty of Indian markets is that each vendor sells his or her own particular product, whether it is a specific meat or fish, a particular type of clothing, or a variety of spices. The growth of supermarkets is just now pervading the larger cities but they are still few in number compared to the small open-air shops.
Mackerel and pomfret are examples of fish caught and consumed in India’s coastal waters, but in this recipe for fish curry adapted from my husband’s cousin who lives in the suburbs of Hyderabad, I use catfish or tilapia. A mild yet flaky foundation for the curry paste to adhere to is the kind of fish desired for this dish. Salmon would be more healthful, but would be a wasteful choice for such a generously flavored masala paste.
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 3 tablespoons frozen or fresh fenugreek leaves, thawed
- ½ cup pureed or grated onion
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 2 teaspoons ginger/garlic paste (about 1 tablespoon grated ginger mashed with 4 cloves grated garlic)
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons red Indian chili powder (extra-hot, like Reshampatti)
- 1 pound tilapia or catfish fillets, cut into 2 inch pieces and patted dry
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
- Heat oil in a 10-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat.
- Spoon in the fenugreek and cook for about 10 minutes until some darkening occurs.
- Carefully pour in the watery onion puree, watching for oil splatter.
- Cook for about 5 minutes, until the water evaporates and the onion puree is dry and slightly brown.
- Add about 2 tablespoons of water.
- Add the turmeric, ginger/garlic paste, and coriander.
- Mix well and continue cooking. Allow the water to evaporate again, resulting in a paste-like onion and masala mash.
- Add another 1-2 tablespoons water.
- Add the chili powder. Mix well and cook for a few minutes.
- Again allow the water to evaporate and dry out the paste.
- When the masala looks dry, spread it out on the skillet.
- Place the fish pieces, one by one, with your hands or a small spatula, onto the masala, gently pushing them into the masala paste.
- Sprinkle on the salt.
- Cover and cook for about 15 minutes, flipping fish pieces every 5 minutes very gently, one piece at a time.
- Uncover and cook 5 more minutes if liquid is still visible. The end result will look like a dry fish curry.
- Garnish with cilantro and serve warm.