I wonder how Goans – or any Indian for that matter – made their masala pastes so smooth before the invention of food processors? No doubt they used a pestle and mortar, but I’m betting they never got it as smooth as they do nowadays. Those dry chillies are a nightmare to grind to a paste by hand, believe me I’ve tried. The reason for my ire? I’ve been trying out various recipes for Goan fish curries and have found that my ancient food processor is no longer up to the job of anything much. That’s not to say I haven’t been able to produce a masala. Just that after half an hour of whizzing around in the processor it doesn’t go beyond finely ground. But that’s not going to stop me from posting this recipe. It’s too good not to and I don’t want you to miss out on the tanginess and spiciness of a traditional Goan fish curry. Just try to make your masala paste smoother than mine!
I learned a version of the Goan fish curry on a recent trip to Siolim, a medium-sized lush, green and quiet (it was off-season) village in Northern Goa. As Goa is well-known for its diverse food scene, we ate as much as possible while we were there but also took a little time out to do a cookery course. Run by heritage hotel Siolim House in an annexe property of theirs that was conveniently located across the road from where we were staying, the course is taken by a local Goan Catholic lady called Nettie.
As a result of Portuguese colonialism between the early 16th and mid 20th centuries Goan Catholic food is a fusion of Indian and Portuguese flavours. Think sour and spicy. In fact, it was actually the Portuguese that brought chillies to India after discovering them in the Americas. Before this Indian food generally got its heat from black pepper. It was this Goan Catholic food that Nettie taught us on the course. As well as the fish curry, we also learned how to make fish recheado and the celebratory dish pork sorpotel, both of which will make an appearance on the blog in the future.
The start of the class involved a trip to the local fish market where Nettie bought freshly caught mackerel and pomfret (a very popular fish in India) for us to cook with. We also saw baby shark (which we subsequently found out are commonly eaten in Goa), clams, crabs and loads of bombay duck (a fish!) amongst various other seafood.
As is typical with most Indian dishes, there are various different recipes for Goan fish curry. The one constant however is sourness, generally provided by tamarind and kokum but also sometimes with raw mango. My recipe is based on Nettie’s, but with some changes to the spices and cooking technique after some online research and experimentation. I’ve also added Sichuan peppercorns which appear to be fairly common in Konkani cuisine. Called tirphal or teppal in Konkani they add a warming, not unpleasant numbing sensation to the tongue. You should be able to find tamarind and kokum in South Asian shops or online. If you can’t there are various ideas for substitutes online, but the taste won’t be quite the same. The Kashmiri chillies are also integral to the dish and provide it with the vibrant orange colour.
Even if your food processor is rubbish like mine, make this anyway as I can guarantee it’s gonna taste pretty good.
Goan Mackerel Curry (serves 3-4)
4 whole medium-sized mackerel, cleaned and gutted
1 tsp sea salt flakes
80g freshly grated coconut
4 dried Kashmiri chillies (soaked in hot water for 1 hour)
2 dried spicy red chillies of your choice (soaked in hot water for 1 hour)
¾ inch sized ball of tamarind (soaked in warm water for 10 mins and seeds removed if necessary)
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp turmeric
5 black peppercorns
4 garlic cloves
½ inch sized piece of peeled ginger
1 tbsp oil (I use olive)
3 dried kokum skins (soaked in warm water for 10 mins if hard to the touch)
1 green chilli split lengthways
10 Sichuan peppercorns bruised in a pestle & mortar
500ml water (100ml for the masala, 400ml for the curry)
Put the mackerel in a bowl with the salt. Mix and keep aside.
Put the grated coconut, dried chillies, tamarind, cumin seeds, turmeric, black peppercorns, garlic and ginger in a food processor with 100ml of water. Blend until you have a smooth paste.
Heat the oil in a deep heavy based pan on a medium/high heat. Add the masala paste and fry for 5-10 minutes until fragrant and darker in colour.
Add the remaining 400ml of water, kokum, green chilli and bruised Sichuan peppercorns. Mix thoroughly, turn the heat up and bring to the boil.
Once boiling point has been reached, reduce the heat slightly until you have a gentle simmer and add the fish. Make sure they are fully covered by the liquid.
Simmer for approximately 10 minutes until the fish is cooked through. Don’t stir too much during this time or the fish will break up.
Check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary (I usually find another ¼ tsp is enough). Remove the kokum skins before serving if you wish – you won’t want to eat them!
Serve with plain white rice.