[A]: The southern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra (capital Mumbai/Bombay) is dotted with beautiful white sandy beaches that are relatively untouched by the urban sprawl. The pace of life is very slow compared to the fast life in Mumbai and life revolves around the sea and the lovely beaches as the locals are mostly fishermen. Malvan is the closest town and the cuisine of this region is rich in sea food cooked with a hot spice mix, coconuts and a taste balancer called kokum, whose effect is similar to tamarind. This hot and sour taste in the curry is similar to many coastal regions of India including Goa and Kerala, but there are some variations in the spice mix each region uses. It is a pity that this variation is often masked by the overpowering heat from the chillis in the spice mix and most people who taste the coastal dishes just remember the extreme heat and nothing else! I have consciously reduced the quantity of chillis in the curry so that the subtle flavours from different spices stand out and the complexity in the spice mix is evident.
The fish used for Malvani fish curry is surmai (King fish). This is an oily fish with a very smooth skin and no scales. Although imported frozen King fish steaks are easily available, I thought it best to make use of fresh fish from the local fishmonger. The swordfish has properties similar to King fish and the steaks look very attractive at the fishmonger’s. So I decided to provide a Malvani spice touch to it.
The fish sellers in India (Photo courtesy: Akhilesh Pal)
The “garam masala” Malvani style is the secret ingredient to this dish. Although very little of this dry spice mix is actually needed to cook, it is better to prepare a larger quantity and save in a air tight container for later use. I have given below the proportions I use. Some of the ingredients are hard to find. But thanks to many online spice shops in the marketplace, I was able to source all the rare spices from home.
Malvani Masala Powder
12 whole dry red chillies
2 Kashmiri chillis
1/4 cup coriander seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
3/4 tsp caraway seeds
2 black cardamoms
10 inch piece of cinnamon
1 1/2 tbsp Stone flower (dagar phool/kalpasi) – this lichen grows on trees and imparts an almost cinnamon-like flavour with slightly bitter undertones
1/2 tsp Cobra’s saffron (Nagkeshar) – this is the bud of a tropical hardwood tree flower, widely grown in India as a herbal medicine
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp asafoetida
1/2 star anise
Preparation: To make the spice powder, heat the whole spices in a dry sturdy pan. Once heated, the spices start to release their aroma. Take it off the heat, cool slightly and grind the mix to a fine powder.
1 red onion, finely diced
1 vine tomato, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup scraped fresh coconut
5 garlic cloves
2 tbsp Malvani Masala Powder
1 cup water
Preparation: Blend all the ingredients together in a wet grinder.
For the gravy
1 red onion, finely diced
2 tbsp vegetable oil
4 swordfish steaks
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 cup kokum liquid – kokum is made from the rind of a fruit in the mangosteen family. When dried, it is either blackish-red in colour (meaning it’s been sun-dried) or deep black (meaning smoke-dried). It is used in many fish curry dishes originating from Kerala.
Make sure the fish steaks are at room temperature. Coat the steaks evenly with the turmeric powder and a pinch of Malvani Masala Powder. Leave them aside for at least 10 minutes before cooking.
Select a suitable sturdy container, a frying pan or a sauce pan that is big enough to accommodate the fish steaks. Keep in mind that you need to cover the fish steaks with sufficient sauce while cooking and your container should be suitable for that.
Heat the oil in the pan and fry the onions on low heat sufficiently to brown the onions. It should take around 10 minutes in a low-medium heat.
Next add the wet paste and bring the contents of the pan to boil. Once it starts to boil, reduce the heat and let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the kokum liquid and salt. Stir thoroughly and increase the heat so that the mixture starts to boil again. When boiling bring in the fish and reduce the heat so that the mix continues to simmer. Do not stir after adding the fish otherwise the fish might break. After 5 minutes of simmering, turn each fish steak over and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Take the pan off the heat and let the fish rest for at least 5 minutes. Serve with aromatic basmati rice or American long grain rice when the fish curry is still warm.