Spice Mama is the way I honour the memory of the women in my family, by telling the story of the food they cooked for those they loved, and the food they most loved to eat.
Any migrant will tell you it can be lonely in the kitchen; but when I cook the food of my culture, my ancestors are with me, keeping me company. I started making traditional East Indian bottle masala after my nana died, because the incredible fragrance of the roasting spices reminded me of her.
This first recipe I share today is a fragrant, coconut fish curry.
A few hundred years ago, the great city of Bombay was no more than a series of fishing villages. I grew up in Colaba, close to the seafront, and fish made up a big part of our diet. The local fisher women would bring big baskets of the day’s catch to our house in the morning and if it passed the scrutiny of my nana, we would eat fish curry that day.
There are several different versions of our fish curry. I usually make it with my nana’s East Indian Bottle Masala, but this simple version is a good basic recipe, fresh and full of fragrant curry leaves, turmeric and coconut. Curry leaves are such an essential part of Indian cooking, and they are so good for you, so plant a tree or borrow some from a kind neighbour. If you can’t source them, it is okay to leave them out.
500 grams of firm fleshed fish (Spanish mackerel is our favourite)
1 tin of good quality coconut milk or cream (I like Ayam brand)
2 tablespoons of coconut oil
1 stalk of fresh curry leaves
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
¾ teaspoon of black mustard seeds
2 green chillies, slit vertically down the middle
1 inch square piece of fresh ginger, finely grated
¾ plus ¾ teaspoon of turmeric (1 ½ teaspoons in total)
1 teaspoon of salt
Juice of half a lemon, to taste, or some tamarind paste
Rinse and place the fish pieces on a plate, then sprinkle over ¾ teaspoon of turmeric and a bit of salt, rub in and then set aside. Traditionally, we rub fish with turmeric and salt to clean it.
In a heavy-based saucepan, heat the coconut oil and add the curry leaves, mustard seeds and cumin seeds, waiting until they all start popping (and being careful to keep out of the way of flying seeds!). This process tempers the spices and allows them to release their nutrients in the oil. Add the ginger and chillies and fry for another minute until the ginger smells aromatic, then add the remaining ¾ teaspoon of turmeric and slowly start adding the coconut milk. Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Fill the coconut milk can with water and dilute the curry by adding this slowly to increase the amount of gravy (you don’t need to add the whole can, just enough to keep it juicy).
Place the fish pieces gently in the gravy and cook until done, no more than another 10 minutes or so depending on the thickness of your fillets.
After this, add the salt and lemon and taste for seasoning, you can always add more as needed so don’t add either all at once.
Serve with hot white Basmati rice.