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The magic of marinade and the ways of fish

In advance of a return to an old homeland, a musing on origins, spices and traditions and a guide to getting the most out of the least

A simple fish curry from Goa is all about the marinade. (Istockphoto)
A simple fish curry from Goa is all about the marinade. (Istockphoto)

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As I watch the early October rains and feel the sweep of cool winds, I remember one reason why we stick with Bengaluru, a city otherwise devastated by avarice and neglect, its former sprawl of trees, lakes and parks consumed by construction and sewage.

The other reason why the city is still a people magnet is—contradictorily—its people, a creative, engaging and friendly bunch, although you can often sense growing anger and frustration on our heaving streets. The local news, for instance, will often narrate how people were murdered by goons—or rowdies, as we call them—for “staring”, for overtaking, and, in one recent instance, for not knowing the name of the local goon.

My wife often points to the giant rain tree outside our house and says, “When that goes, we go.” But I don’t think we ever will. Being a Bangalorean—no, it’s not Bengalurean—isn’t about upping and leaving. It’s about being true, in happiness and sorrow.

Recently, though, I could move my attention away from my hometown to thoughts of where my family originally came from—Goa, which, you could convincingly argue, is also facing a rough time. When faced with intractable issues, I retreat to my kitchen, and that is what I did. Divert your thoughts, cook some good food and then think about the world’s problems.

Perhaps inspired by a forthcoming holiday planned in my home state, I focused on simple, straightforward Goan fare, which really is all about getting the most taste out of the most basic ingredients. That involved a preponderance of fish, now that the monsoon was officially over.

While I am a fan of minimally spiced food, my tastes are very Goan when it comes to fish. I like spices, I like marinades and I like freshness. I spent the week making prawns, fish and squid. I have a bountiful collection of spice mixes and there is a particular fish masala that I stock, procured from Shevde’s, a family run spice shop on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast (I have written about Shevde’s previously in Lounge).


Rava coated prawns. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Rava coated prawns. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

But Shevde’s masala had lulled me into complacency. So I abandoned my recent proclivity for their one-step fix and went back to making fish the way I used to—with basic condiments from the Goan kitchen, back to the food I used to make, all that I had learnt from my mother and grandmother.

One of the first things I ever learnt to make was basic Goan fried fish, marinated with red chilli powder, turmeric, salt and tamarind. My mother also makes, usually for special occasions, the rava-fried version, coated in semolina.

Getting a marinade right is immensely satisfying, as is the process of lathering fish with spices and semolina. Actually it’s hard to go wrong with the basic Goan marinades since they are so utterly simple. For decades, I noticed my aunts and mother ritually marinating fresh fish in turmeric, red chilli powder and salt before consigning it to the freezer. That basic marinade is good for fried and curry fish or the bhoozana, a version tossed in grated coconut, chillies, lime and coriander.

Marination can be a meditative, even calming, affair, feeling your fingers rub in the spice and transform it into a paste as you add tamarind or lime juice, which is an alternative I often use when I don’t want to soak and squeeze the tamarind.

Marinated fish can be fried easily in minimal oil, although the rava-fried version requires substantially more if you want it crisp and golden. It’s quite all right to occasionally discard—as I have—a healthy eating regime to savour the crispiness outside and softness inside of a rava-fried mackerel or pomfret done right.

In anticipation of the return to Goa, I made a simple version of a fish and vegetable curry (see recipe below) that is easy to replicate. There is a bit of a culinary oxymoron here because fish is considered vegetarian in Goa. When you read this, I will be back in the old homeland. I intend to find my way back to our home village, Halarn, buried somewhere in the sylvan northern expanses unfamiliar to tourists, visit our family deity, Vetal, and hope some kind Halarnkar from Halarn will invite this Halarnkar from Bengaluru in for a fish curry and rice. If that happens, I will be sure to bring back the recipe.

A simple Goan curry (fish and vegetable versions)
Serves 4

Half coconut, grated
1 small onion, sliced
Half-inch piece of ginger
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
10-12 Kashmiri chillies, soaked in warm water
1 tbsp tamarind pulp, squeezed from tamarind
Salt to taste
500g firm fish (I used black pomfret or betki)
(Vegetarian version: Use microwaved carrots, beans and boiled potatoes)
7-8 pieces of kokum, soaked in 1 tbsp warm water
2 tsp garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil


Grind all the ingredients, except kokum, garlic, oil and fish, to a fine paste. Use the water in which you soaked the chillies and add a little water to ensure the grinding is smooth.

In a wok, gently heat the oil and fry the garlic for a minute. Add the paste and fry for five minutes. Add water until you get a fine curry. Bring to a light boil, reduce to a simmer. Add kokum with water, then slide in the fish or vegetables. Do not stir the fish, swirl it around after a minute. Switch off the gas within a couple of minutes and let the heat of the vessel cook the fish. In the vegetarian version, ensure the vegetables are cooked, which they should already be since they would have been microwaved and boiled previously.

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. @samar11 on Twitter.

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