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Fiddling with perfection: a new Goan fish curry

Perfection in food is well and good, but it is also ephemeral and overrated. A grandmother’s recipe finds new expression through a great-granddaughter

The new Goan fish curry.(Samar Halarnkar)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 21.10.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

Over the last few months, I have been—after more than four decades—tampering with my own gold standard, my grandmother’s Goan fish curry.

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s so perfect, at least in my mind, that I find it almost impossible to surpass. When I get it right, the sourness of the kokum is balanced by the creamy blandness of the coconut milk, almost bringing the fish to life again—although that somehow sounds like I am mocking the poor creature’s fate. Perfection, however, is not just ephemeral but overrated and a recipe, as it were, for stagnation, or, worse, rejection by the resident teenager.

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Recently inspired—or re-inspired—by the recipes of the stalwart Mrs K. M. Mathew, I have been trying a series of meen pollichathus and vevichathus. I have tried thin curries and thick curries. All have been excellent to outstanding, and I have truly loved the variety. I served Mrs Mathew’s creations to my picky teen and she nodded in appreciation, eating them with appams and idiappams, the latter her favourite.

In the past, I have gone farther afield with fish curries, trying everything from Bengali doi machch to my own creation, tempered with jakhiya seeds (wild or dog mustard) from Uttarakhand. I haven’t been disappointed with any of these experiments.

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I have not been particularly experimental with fish recipes beyond Indian shores, and I have always been leery of the popular Polish proverb that fish taste right only when they swim three times: in water, butter and wine. I did try using whisky in a fish sauce once.

Recently, I realised it had been a while since I made my grandmother’s Goan fish curry. Surely, I mused, there was something I could do to change it. I have understood over the years that being a successful cook does not require the adoption of complexity. My mantra has always been quick, easy cooking—a bit of this, a bit of that, and see what happens.

So, I considered the fat pieces of a trevally, or vatta, before me. I have been cooking with small pieces of fish, especially black pomfret, for my new approach to Goan curry. My mother turns her nose up at small pomfret and small-sized specimens of otherwise large fish in general. She prefers large kingfish, large kane (silver fish), large pomfret—you get the idea.

She orders fish for me from our local fishmonger, but lately I have been trying an online service that sends small packets, ideal for servings that work perfectly for a one- or two-person meals with no leftovers. They also offer an astonishing variety of fish I have never eaten before, so I have been patronising them quite often (they are called Fresh to Home, if you are curious). For the first time, I ordered the trevally, a fish foreign to my kitchen, from them. The flesh was dense and the fish, flaky. The 300g pack appeared ideal for a quick dinner with the daughter. Since I was trying to retain the simplicity of my grandmother’s curry, I was determined to finish cooking within 10 minutes. I borrowed some elements from the Kerala approach and merged them with the Goan approach. The result was a rich, creamy curry but very simple and speedy. You can read the recipe below.

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This kind of curry is particularly accessible to children because it is mildly spiced. I have learnt over the years that substituting the fiery red masala of the original with a strong yellow is acceptable if the taste and texture remain.

A word about the eternal debate in my mind about souring agents. I have always been partial to kokum but many Goans substitute or add on tirphal or teppal, while fish curries from Kerala also use a lot of tamarind. I have tried to be impartial about this after recent experiments, using tamarind in the curries I have served up for the daughter. I left the decision to her.

Last week, after eating my Goan fish curry modification, she said, “Just make this every time." For a month, we have stuck with the new Goan fish curry: She has stuck to eating it with idiappam, though. And just like that, my experiments with fish curries have ended—at least for now.

Sorry, Mrs Mathew.

The new Goan fish curry

Serves 2

Ingredients

300g trevally

One and a half tsp garlic, finely minced or crushed

One and a half tsp Kashmiri mirch

Half tsp turmeric

1 tsp mustard seeds

10 curry leaves

5 kokum pieces, in a little warm water

Half a can or 3 cups, coconut milk

1 tsp oil

Salt to taste

Method

Mix turmeric and Kashmiri chilli and add a little water and stir. In a small wok, gently heat the oil. Add mustard seeds till they splutter. Add curry leaves, stir, add garlic, sauté for 30 seconds. Add the masala with water, lower heat, and sauté for a minute. Add coconut milk and wait till it starts to bubble. Add kokum with water and salt. Then add the fish, cover and cook for 10 minutes until done. Trevally is a thick fish and needs to be cooked through. If using black pomfret, cut cooking time by almost half. Transfer to another dish and serve with rice, appams or idiappam.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

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