Sunday, July 1, 2012

Fiery Everyday Fish Curry

Fish curry is sacrosanct to Bengali cuisine, and while every household has its own signature recipe that is prepared daily, most feature a spice grouping that I’ve dubbed the “holy Bong trifecta”—paanch phoron,* turmeric and chilli. There is an unparalleled chemical and olfactory magic that happens when paanch phoron meets turmeric and chilli in a watery curry. It is a supremely simple combination, but if used disproportionately, can result in a bitter aftertaste that ruins the dish.

Over the years, I’ve managed to replicate the aroma of the dish that I grew up eating, but I’ve had great difficulty with the texture of the curry base—I invariably end up with something that either is too runny and bland, or too thick and over-spiced. The key culprit is the hard water here in New York, which doesn’t allow the turmeric and chilli to meld into a light and silky curry. After much trial and error, I concluded that I had to use the minimum turmeric and chilli to get the desired flavour, and then boost the body of the curry with a third ingredient.

My secret, very unorthodox ingredient—concentrated tomato paste! Now, before the purists start to hyperventilate, let me assuage all fears with this disclaimer. Tomato paste is NOT traditional by any means. But what it does is to unobtrusively give weight and body to the curry without impeding the spice alchemy. And the sweetness of the tomato balances any potential bitterness from over-frying the paanch phoron.

If you are lucky to be able to cook without hard water, then by all means forego the tomato paste. But if, like me, you encounter curry drama due to an overzealous civic water authority, then call upon my secret weapon to come to the rescue!

2 lbs [1 kg] skin-on Halibut steaks cut into 3-inch-wide pieces
(I used halibut here, but you can substitute with any flaky white fish like sea bass, sole, or flounder.)
4 tbsp Turmeric
Salt, to taste
6 tbsp Vegetable Oil
1 tbsp Paanch Phoron
1 tbsp concentrated Tomato Paste
1½–2 tbsp Chilli powder (adjust to taste)
6–8 fresh whole Green Chillies
1 cup, plus 4 tbsp, Water
  1. Rub fish steaks with 3 tbsp turmeric and salt and set aside for at least 30 mins, and up to 4 hours. 
  2. Heat 4 tbsp oil in a large skillet or frying pan over high heat. Add fish and brown well on both sides. Remove fish and set aside on a platter. Discard oil in pan and wipe clean. 
  3. Heat remaining 2 tbsp oil in same pan over high heat. When the oil is smoking, add paanch phoron and let sputter for a few seconds. Add tomato paste, stir and fry for about 2 mins. 
  4. Mix remaining 1 tbsp turmeric and chilli powder with 4 tbsp water to make a paste, add to pan, and stir to incorporate. Turn heat to low, add green chillis, salt, and remaining water, and let simmer for about a minute.
  5. Transfer browned fish to the pan, and spoon sauce over the fish. Put a lid on the pan and let simmer for about 5–7 mins, until the fish is cooked-through and the oil has separated from the sauce. Turn off heat and let sit for 10 mins. Serve with rice. 
[*Paanch Phoron is a five-spice blend used extensively in Eastern India, especially in the cuisines of Bengal, Orissa and Assam. The five whole spices are blended in equal parts— Fenugreek seeds (methi), Nigella seeds (kalonji, or kaalo jirey), Fennel seeds (mouri), Carom (radhuni), Mustard seed (shorshey). In my family, the fifth spice, mustard, is not used, but the blend is still referred to as “five spice.”]

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