Curry made from tinned fish? Yes, it sounds weird I know, but don’t dismiss it too quickly. It’s so full of flavour and has an almost umami vibe that it easily makes it one of my top comfort dishes.
This recipe was created by my mum and her sister in the 1960s soon after they arrived in the UK from Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, and was borne out of hard times and difficulties in getting fresh fish on a weekday outside of working hours. Having spent their childhood in a coastal city where fish was plentiful and eaten regularly, this was a dish of desperation and adaptation. It continued to be a regular evening meal when I was growing up, and even now my mum makes it from time to time; there’s always a couple of tins of Glenryck’s Pilchards in the kitchen cupboard ready for those days when she’s short on time or the fridge is looking a little sparse. All that’s needed are a few tomatoes, an onion and some spices, and dinner’s ready!
Tinned Pilchard Curry (serves 2 generously)
1 medium red onion
6 large garlic cloves
40g ginger (peeled weight)
1-3 green chillies (depending how much heat you like!)
3 tbsp oil (I use olive)
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 x 400g tin pilchards in tomato sauce
4 ripe fresh tomatoes (plum if you can get them)
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp sea salt
2½ tsp garam masala (the best quality you can find)
Roughly chop the onion, crush the garlic, grate the ginger and finely chop the chillies. Keep aside.
Heat the oil on a medium heat in a heavy based pot/pan, add the fenugreek seeds and fry gently for 3 minutes or so until they become slightly darker in colour – be careful not to burn them as this will give a bitter taste to your curry.
Add the chopped onion and allow to soften gently for 10 minutes. Once translucent, turn the heat up a little and allow the onions to brown (approx. 5 minutes).
While the onions are cooking, remove the tinned fish carefully from their sauce and keep them aside. Put the sauce in a separate bowl. Grate the fresh tomatoes (discarding any excess skin that gets left behind in your hand) and add these to the sauce.
Once the onions are browned, turn the heat back down to medium and add the garlic, ginger, green chillies, turmeric, salt and 1½ tsp of the garam masala. Mix well and cook for 5 minutes or until the spices are no longer raw.
Add the sauce/grated tomato mixture and 100ml of water to the pan, bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for 30-40 minutes until the tomatoes are done. Add more water if you feel it’s getting too dry – you want a thick, but not dry consistency. Check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary – I usually add another ¼ teaspoon.
Once the tomatoes are cooked, carefully place the fish in the pot and push them under the surface. Sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of garam masala on top (don’t stir), cover the pot and allow to cook for a final 5-10 minutes.
Serve with white basmati rice.