Spicy fish curry dish is seasoned with childhood memories of India's Konkan region
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Sujata Halarnkar's Aji, or grandmother, would pretty much eat seafood every day. That was the norm for the family from the Konkan region by India's west coast. The type of fish or seafood varied depending on what was in season and resulted in many different curry recipes, but the simplest one is what Halarnkar comes back to time and time again.
"It's a very traditional [curry] with the basic ingredients, nothing very fancy, but it's a family tradition," Halarnkar said. "It transfers from my grandmother, from my mom's mother. And we have been cooking this forever. If I make this, people just love this."
Halarnkar lives in Yuma, Ariz., today, but she grew up in Mumbai, and her grandparents lived south of the city in a village. Her mother would take her and her four sisters to her grandparents' for summer vacation. There, her grandmother, Saraswati Wadkar, would cook for them, often making this curry.
"That is one of the most great memories I had about my childhood," Halarnkar said. "We had a beach to ourselves and we had no worries. My grandmother was cooking for us. You would buy fresh fish every morning and cook that."
As much as Halarnkar associates those summers with this curry recipe, she also thinks of the sweet Alphonso mangoes she ate with the curry.
"My grandmother would make this recipe very spicy because that was traditionally how it is made, but we could not handle those spices, so she would serve fresh ripe mangoes with it," Halarnkar said.
She can handle the spicy curry now, but she still enjoys mangoes with the dish — even if the combination perplexes others.
"When I got married, my husband was really surprised," Halarnkar said, recalling his reaction. "'Why are you eating mangoes with your meal? Especially with fish curry,'" he'd ask. "But then I had to explain to him that this is how we grew up. And I just loved that combination from then on."
This fish curry represents the ultimate comfort food to Halarnkar, who said her family always craves it when they return from out of town.
"We'll go out to the fish market, buy fresh fish and make this the first thing," she said. "You don't even worry about vegetables at that point. You just eat some steamed rice and this fish curry."
Halarnkar has passed on the recipe to her daughter Natasha, who lives in San Diego and shares Halarnkar's love of cooking. And even though the next generation has the recipe, Halarnkar said she still loves when her mom makes the curry in India.
In fact, she's looking forward to having it the next time she goes to visit.
"I can tell you 100%, my mom is going to make it for me when I arrive there," Halarnkar said. "No doubt about it."
- 1 pound fish fillet — salmon or trout works well
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- salt to taste
- 2 green chilis, sliced
- 6 cloves garlic (4 peeled and 2 peeled and sliced for tempering)
- 2 tablespoons chili powder (or 7 to 8 dry red chilis)
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds or 1 teaspoon coriander powder
- 1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
- 1 teaspoon cilantro, chopped for garnishing
- ½ cup red onion, sliced and divided
- 1 cup coconut milk, canned
- 2 pieces kokum, special sour fruit available in India (optional) or 1 tablespoon lemon juice or 1 teaspoon tamarind paste
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup water
Cut the fish fillet into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Rinse once under cold water. Pat dry and place the fish pieces in a bowl.
Marinate the fish with turmeric and salt and set it aside for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, blend onions, garlic, coriander seeds, chili powder and cilantro to a fine paste with a little water (about 1 tablespoon).
In a heavy-bottom pan, heat oil and add the sliced garlic pieces to the hot oil. Once the garlic turns golden brown, add the sliced onions and green chilis. Sauté until the onions are soft. Then add the blended spices and fry it for a few seconds.
Add ¾ cup of coconut milk and 1 cup of water. Mix it well. Adjust the water if you think it is too thick. Bring it to a boil and gently add the fish pieces along with the kokum or lemon juice. Let it simmer for 3-4 minutes on medium heat or until the fish is just turning opaque.
Garnish with the remaining coconut milk and serve hot with steamed rice.
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