Diary of an obsession: It took four weeks and a dozen failed attempts before I
was able to replicate the sumptuous red snapper curry I tasted in India.
This is what happens when I become obsessed with a recipe:
In the last few weeks, I’ve cooked 9 pounds of red snapper, cracked open 13 coconuts, and bought so many fresh curry leaves that Thomas and James, the owners of our local Indian grocery, thought they’d found the promised land.
I flew through the kilo of dried Kashmiri chilies I hand-carried back from Goa, then spent days calling and emailing around the country looking for more. I fried so much chili paste that the house filled up with eye-watering fumes. Doors slammed, imprecations were muttered. And let’s not talk about clogging the sink with grated coconut, or the many sample containers that clogged the refrigerator.
In case you’re wondering, I’ve been trying to replicate the seductive red snapper curry that I tasted at the Taj Malabar in Cochin a couple of months ago. Amit Ghosh, the hotel’s personable and infinitely patient executive chef, has been a willing co-conspirator in this endeavor. It was Amit who, after a few false starts on my part, sent the real recipe from the hotel kitchen and who has genially responded to a flood of inquiries about each step of the process. He even studied the photos I’ve sent of each version, commenting on the thickness-- or not--of the curry sauce. “I feel the gravy is a little loose,” he said of a watery one. “Maybe you can reduce it and add very thick coconut milk so it will have a pouring consistency.”
Amit is just the kind of friend I would love to have in the kitchen all the time. A native of Calcutta, he’s been with the Taj Hotels for 21 years, 17 of which were spent in Bangalore in the south of India. On his own, he likes to cook simple foods with simple ingredients: “Not too much oil or fat, and just the right spices and masala [spice mixture] when I cook Indian food.”
The lightness of his touch is evident in this recipe for meen mullagittathu, which means “fish in a spicy red sauce.” In my case, the fish was red snapper plucked from Arabian Sea, exquisitely fresh, perfectly succulent. It was presented in a mellow sauce with a fascinating interplay of flavors. There was the sweetness of ginger and sautéed shallots, the slight bitterness of fenugreek, mustard seeds and curry leaves sizzled in oil, and the gentle heat of red Kashmiri chili paste. Towards the end, he added the tangy liquid in which kokum, a popular South Indian souring agent, had been soaking, and then some luscious freshly extracted coconut milk. The fish, which is simmered in the curry sauce just long enough to be cooked, brought all these flavors together into a delicious whole—in end, it is the fish, even more than the sauce, that you taste.
Meen mullagittathu is a traditional Kerala curry, that, in ordinary kitchens, is made in a clay pot called a chatti which lends a special flavor to the sauce. Lacking a chatti, as most of us do, you can also make it in a heavy saucepan. But it does require a few special ingredients, so some shopping is necessary. This is not a spur of the moment Tuesday night curry, but a special one for the weekend when you have time to tarry in the kitchen.
A few words about the ingredients:
Kashmiri chilies: Naturally, after a week of searching on line and by phone, I happened to return for the 18th time to The Spice Market in Durham where a new shipment had just reached the shelves. (It helps that Thomas and James are from Kerala). The brand is Tulsy and the chilies are very close to the ones I brought back from Goa.
These medium, tapered dried red chilies are used to make the all-important chili paste. The flesh of the chilies is not particularly hot, but has a pleasant, mildly fruity taste. On the Scoville Scale, the Kashmiri clocks in at 4,000 to 5,000 units, similar to a jalapeno. Most of the real fire is concentrated in the seeds, so after softening the chilies in water, you can control the heat by removing as many—or as few—of the seeds as you like. This paste also lends a beautiful rich red hue to the curry sauce.
The recipe also calls for a spoonful (actually many spoonfuls, but I cut back) of Kashmiri chili powder to stoke the heat. This is a very different animal, much hotter than the whole chilies since it includes the ground up seeds. It’s an example of the way Indian cooks use different versions of the same ingredient to achieve different effects. Although the powdered chilies do not have as much flavor as the whole chilies, still if you can’t find the latter, you could make the chili paste by combining a tablespoon of Kashmiri chili powder with a little water. Just be sure that the heat doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the fish or the other flavors of the sauce.
Do not substitute any of the other Asian chili pastes, by the way—most are very hot and some contain other ingredients such as shrimp paste.
Kokum: This is the dried dark purple fruit of the garcinia indica tree which grows along the west coast of India. It is widely used in the cooking of that region as a souring and a cooling agent. At Mapusa market in Goa, I saw kokum—also known as cocum or kokam—spilling from open burlap bags. Cut in half and dried, it looks like a small, blackish-purple citrus with a chewy rind. Here in the U.S. the fruit tends to be quite hard and dry. Even when it’s soaked for hours, it never really softens up.
In this recipe, the fruit is not used, but the very sour, tangy water in which it has been soaked. Substitutes might include tamarind water, which is widely used for sourness in other parts of India, or even lemon juice mixed with a little water.
Coconut milk: It’s nice that we can buy canned unsweetened coconut milk, but frankly there is a huge difference in flavor between the greasy tasting stuff in cans and the divine richness of milk extracted from a freshly cracked coconut. Of course it is much more time consuming to make it fresh. Purists will blanch, but I cheated by blending frozen shredded coconut from the Indian grocery with hot water. I then pressed the coconut through a strainer to extract the liquid. This yields a thin, but flavorful coconut milk which will very nicely temper the heat of the chilies in the curry. You can thicken it by gently simmering the sauce for a few minutes before the adding the fish.
I should point out, of course, that Amit Ghosh and his chefs always use the thick coconut cream extracted from a freshly cracked and grated coconut. If you want to do this, follow the directions for removing the coconut from its shell provided in Aliza Green’s excellent cookbook, Starting with Ingredients: Pierce the soft eye of the coconut with a sharp tool and drain the water. Bake the coconut in a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes and cool. Crack with a hammer and use a small spatula to separate the meat from the shell. Peel the dark skin from the white meat, if desired, or leave it natural.
To make the coconut milk, coarsely chop the coconut meat. This will yield about two cups. For each cup of meat, pour in 2/3 to 3/4 cup hot water and process until the coconut is very finely ground. Pour into a large strainer positioned over a bowl, and press out the rich cream with the back of a spoon. Or you can pour the coconut into a clean non-terry dishtowel and squeeze out the liquid.
Coconut oil: The recipe calls for coconut oil and that is what I used, since it adds deep, rich notes to the curry. However, it is not the healthiest oil, so feel free to substitute canola oil if you like. I used the Parachute brand of pure coconut oil, which comes in a bright blue bottle that looks like it holds shampoo. Actually Thomas told me that you can use it on your hair as well.
Kerala Red Snapper Curry with Kashmiri Chilies, Ginger and Coconut Milk
(adapted from Executive Chef Amit Ghosh, Taj Malabar Hotel)
To Serve 2 to 3
2 ounces dried Kashmiri chilies (see note)
1/4 cup dried kokum (see note)
2 cups frozen shredded coconut, thawed (see note)
12 ounces red snapper fillet
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons coconut or canola oil
1/2 cup shallots, thinly sliced
1-1/2 inches fresh gingerroot, peeled and julienned
1 tablespoon garlic, thinly sliced (4 to 5 cloves)
1-1/4 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
24 curry leaves (see note)
1/4 cup Kashmiri chili paste (see directions below)
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder (optional)
1/3 cup fresh tomato puree
1 cup coconut milk (see directions below)
Salt to taste
1. Make chili paste: Place the dried Kashmiri chilies in a bowl and cover with boiling water. When the chilies have softened, pour off the soaking liquid but reserve 1 cup. Remove the stems, tear open the chilies and remove as many of the seeds as possible. Put the chilies in the blender or food processor along with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid and whirr until the chilies are reduced to a thick paste. Only add as much water as needed to process the chilies. This will make approximately 3/4 cup paste. Set aside 1/4 cup for this recipe. The rest may be frozen for future use.
2. Place the dried kokum in a bowl and cover with 1/4 cup boiling water. Set aside.
3. Make the coconut milk: Put one cup of the shredded coconut in a blender with 2/3 cup hot water. Blend for 1 to 2 minutes, until very smooth. Place a strainer over a bowl and pour the coconut mixture into the strainer. Press on the solids with the back of a spoon to extract all the liquid. There should be 2/3 cup of thin, but flavorful milk. Discard the solids. Repeat the process with the second cup of shredded coconut for a total of 1-1/3 cup coconut milk. Set aside.
4. Wash the fish, pat dry and cut into 1-1/2- to 2-inch pieces. Rub with turmeric and salt and set aside.
5. Make the curry sauce: Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium flame. When it is hot, add the shallots and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the shallots begin to turn golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
6. Add the mustard seeds to the remaining oil. (You can use a spatter screen to keep them from jumping out of the pan.) When they begin to crackle, add the fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Saute for 1 minute.
7. Turn the heat to medium low and stir in the 1/4 cup chili paste and 2 tablespoons of water. Stirring frequently, cook the chili paste for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chili powder (if using), fried shallots, ginger and garlic to the cooked chili paste and stir.
8. Turn the heat to low and add the tomato puree. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
9. Discard the kokum solids and add the soaking liquid to the curry mixture along with 1-1/2 cups water. Bring briefly to a boil, then lower heat and simmer gently for 7 to 8 minutes, until the curry sauce is slightly reduced. It should be liquid, but not thin or watery. Add the coconut milk and stir to combine.
10. Bring the curry sauce to a very slight simmer, then add the fish and salt to taste. Continue to simmer very gently until the fish is just cooked. It will turn white and opaque. Taste the mixture and correct seasoning, adding the 1/3 cup reserved coconut milk and more salt if desired.
11. Serve with basmati rice and bottles of ice cold Kingfisher beer.
Note: A well-stocked Indian grocery store will be your best bet for Kashmiri chilies and chili powder, frozen shredded coconut (unsweetened), dried kokum, pure coconut oil and fresh curry leaves. I found all of these items at Spice Bazaar, 4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham, NC 27707-2666. Telephone and fax: 919-490-3747. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I used Tulsy brand Kashmiri chilies, chili powder and frozen shredded coconut; the pure coconut oil was Parachute brand. You can freeze fresh curry leaves for 1 to 2 months.