Recipe: Mystica’s Sri Lankan Fish Curry with Coconut, Turmeric and Ginger

This coconut-rich fish curry, flavored with roasted Sri Lankan spices, chillies, and lime, is easy enough to make for a weeknight supper. Turmeric gives it a beautiful golden glow.

This coconut-rich fish curry, flavored with roasted Sri Lankan spices, chillies, and lime, is easy enough to make for a weeknight supper. Turmeric gives it a beautiful golden glow.

For a few weeks now I’ve been chatting via email with a reader in Sri Lanka. We’ve exchanged about spices, as well as the strikes and price hikes that plague the hardworking people of this island nation that lies off the tip of India. (See Mystica’s blog here.)

As it happens Mystica’s family are growers of cinnamon and tea as well as mandarin oranges, chillies and other vegetables. Their cinnamon is the real thing, a sweet, mellow spice, indigenous to Sri Lanka, whose flavor combines a whisper of citrus with a mild astringency. Its aroma is so alluring that, centuries ago, a Dutch sea captain nearing Ceylon, or the Isle of Serendib as it was once known, wrote that he could smell its fragrance “eight leagues out to sea.”

But this post is not about cinnamon. It’s really about Mystica’s delicious fish curry, an easy dish simmered in coconut milk with turmeric, chillies and other spices, brightened with a squeeze of lime.

Make this curry and an ordinary weeknight supper takes on the aroma of the tropics, no mean feat when freezing rain is beating against the window.

This is the kind of curry that you can make when you get home from work. Kick off your shoes and pour yourself a glass of wine while you cut up an onion, some garlic and a little fresh ginger. Add some pre-mixed curry spices, turmeric, ground chilli powder and some fish, cut into small cubes.

While the fish marinates, walk around your garden—if it’s warm enough—and decide where you’re going to plant the new purple leafed plum tree. Or, if it’s really cold, light the fire and pick up where you left off in the book you’re reading. (For me, that would be Wade Davis’s riveting new book about World War I and the conquest of Everest, Into the Silence.)

After a while, heat up some oil in a pan, briefly sauté the fish and the marinade, pour in the coconut milk and simmer for a few minutes more. Stir in some lime juice and you’re done.

Simple, but still, there are a few secrets that will make a difference:

First, there’s the curry powder. This is not your typical turmeric-heavy premixed curry blend, nor is it the sweet “fragrancing” curry powder that includes cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Instead look for a “flavoring blend” made mostly of coriander, cumin and fenugreek.

After a few fruitless forays, I discovered AMK dark roasted Sri Lankan curry powder at my local Indian market. It includes coriander (64%), cumin (14%), fennel (14%), fenugreek, (2 %), mustard (2%) and pepper (2%). There’s a trace of cinnamon (2%), but not enough to alter the curry powder’s savory taste.

If you cannot find such a blend, you might follow my exasperated Indian spice merchant’s advice–”Really, madam, what do you want?– and make your own by roasting 1 tablespoon coriander seed, 1 teaspoon cumin seed, a pinch of fenugreek, and perhaps a few black peppercorns in a cast iron skillet over a medium-low flame. Let them cool, add a pinch of mustard seed, and grind to a fine powder.

Second, there’s the question of the fish: Mystica recommends white, preferably firm-fleshed varieties. She writes: “The fish we use is varied—we are an island after all. Mullet (softer firm-fleshed), seer (firm-fleshed), tuna and a myriad others. Small fish like whitebait etc. we tend to deep fry because of the bones.”

In the fish case last week I saw tilapia and catfish, but in the end a large, very fresh fillet of grouper won me over. A satisfactory choice, as it turned out, because its flavor was distinct enough to stand up to the the taste of the curry and rich coconut milk. Other possibilities might include cod, sole, perhaps even halibut or wahoo.

The key is to cut the fish into relatively small chunks—about ¾ inch—and to saute the pieces gently until all surfaces are golden brown. The fish will continue cooking when you add the coconut milk and the browning process adds a deeper, more succulent flavor to the final dish.

Third: the coconut milk: “This must be thick coconut milk,” writes Mystica, “not the watery one!” But how do you get thick coconut milk when you don’t have a couple of coconut trees in your backyard or the skills to extract the richest milk?

Aroy D to the rescue. I am a huge fan of this fresh, unsweetened coconut milk from Thailand that comes in an aseptic package that can be refrigerated for at least 2 weeks after opening. For thick milk, I dump the contents of the package into a bowl and scoop out the thick cream which usually separates from the thinner liquid. (Don’t shake the box before opening!) To get the right consistency—thick but liquid enough to pour—I then whisk in some of the thinner milk.

You could also do this with canned coconut milk or even coconut cream, whisking in water if there’s not enough thin liquid. It’s very important to use unsweetened coconut products rather than the tooth-achingly sugary stuff that ruins so many Thai restaurant curries.

Like all good home recipes, the seasonings in this curry can be adapted to taste. You can control the heat by adjusting the quantity of chilli powder and number of green chiles that you use. (For the chilli powder, incidentally, I used pure ground Kashmiri chillies.) I adore the taste of fresh ginger, so I used much more than Mystica recommended. And B loved the pungent flavor that a spoonful of hot and sweet mango chutney added to the dish.

A final note: The beautiful golden color of this curry comes from turmeric, an ancient spice known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is a staple of the Indian pantry and many commercial curry powders are full of it. But I find it interesting that in this dish, the warm but bitter spice is added separately to the marinade where it seems to sweeten and freshen the fish.

Delicious and healthy too! Here’s the recipe.

Mystica’s Sri Lankan Fish Curry with Coconut Milk, Turmeric and Ginger

You can also use this recipe to make a homestyle curry with prawns or with small pieces of chicken, preferably on the bone. To fully cook the chicken, simmer it a few minutes longer in the coconut milk.

Serves 4 people with rice

Ingredients for the fish and marinade:
1-1/4 pounds white, firm-fleshed fish (see above)
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic (or more to taste), finely chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger (or more to taste), finely chopped
1 fresh green Thai chilli (or more to taste), seeded (if desired) and finely chopped
2 teaspoons curry powder (see above)
1/4 teaspoon (or more to taste) chilli powder (Mystica uses 1 full teaspoon)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric powder

Ingredients for cooking the curry:
3 tablespoons canola oil
1-1/2 cups thick coconut milk (see above)

Lime juice, to taste

Garnish (optional):
Fresh coriander leaves, chopped
Green chillies, sliced
Mango chutney

1. Cut the fish into small pieces, about ¾-inch. Place the fish in a large bowl and set aside.
2. Combine the onion, garlic, ginger, green chillies, curry powder, chilli powder, salt and turmeric and mix well. Pour the mixture over the fish and toss so that all the surfaces of the fish are covered with spices and and other seasonings. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes. Then brush the marinade off the fish. Reserve the marinade.
3. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over a medium flame. When it is hot (but definitely not smoking) add the fish. Saute, turning frequently, until the fish is golden brown. If it begins to brown too quickly, lower the heat. Do not let the spices burn.
4. When the fish is golden brown, add the marinade and turn the heat to low. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes, just until the onion is slightly softened. Whisk the coconut milk so that it is very smooth and pour it into the pan. Simmer gently for 3 to 4 minutes. Do not let the coconut milk come to a boil or it may curdle.
5. Remove the curry from the heat. Taste and add salt if desired. Squeeze lime juice to taste into the curry and stir. Taste again and adjust seasonings if necessary. Sprinkle with fresh cilantro and chopped green chilies if desired. Serve with steamed basmati rice and a dish of mango chutney on the side.

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