Madras Fish Curry


With this curry you needn’t worry about fat content, calories or a – typically Indian – neverending list of ingredients. The recipe is so simple, I was surprised the short cooking process turned my rather bland fish fillets into a fantastic, beautifully scented Indian treat.

Having tested already several dishes from Rick Stein’s India. In Search of the Perfect Curry, I should have known that, like always, I wouldn’t be disappointed this time. His book has completely changed my – apparently false – idea of the place this category of products occupies in Indian cuisine and encouraged to explore more from this fascinating, well developped chapter. His Squid Curry (posted here) was and still is one of the most delicious Indian and in general seafood dishes I have ever had. Contrary to squid, fish curry is something easily found on restaurants’ menu, but it has always seemed the most neglected dish. Nominated by the author as his favourite curry, this tangy dish proves that not only a fish Indian dish can be genuinely exciting, but it can also become a staple light and quick weekday meal.

As usually, I have slightly modified the recipe, so check Rick Stein’s book to read the original.

TIPS: Fresh curry leaves can be difficult to obtain for many of you, but if you have a possibility to buy them, do not hesitate: their powerful pungent aroma makes this curry unforgettable. At worst you can use dried or frozen leaves, but do not expect a similar strength. I don’t think there is a substitute for curry leaves, so if you cannot get them, just skip them.

While curry leaves are sold in Indian or Pakistani grocery shops, tamarind paste can be find in Chinese/Vietnamese shops too and, in general, it should be much more easier to obtain.

Keep on tasting the dish and adjust the acidity: I found myself adding much more tamarind paste than advised because somehow tangy sauce went better with this fish.

Tamarind is sold in three forms (from what I have noticed): fresh (I have never used), plastic-wrapped blocks, which are diluted in hot water and then strained to obtain a “juice” or ready-to-use pastes (jam consistency) in jars. I prefer blocks because they keep for years and are tangier. (See below how to use them.) Tamarind pastes/jams are ready to use but since I stopped using them a long time ago I have no idea which amount corresponds to the below tamarind “juice”, so if you use this form, keep on tasting and adjust to your preferences.

Preparation: about 30 minutes

Ingredients (serves 4 if served only with rice and a vegetable side-dish):

700 g (about 1,5 oz) firm fish fillets or whole fish chunks, cut into big pieces (the author suggests oily fish as the best, but my lean fish fillets were also delicious)

a 4 cm square of tamarind block

3 tablespoons oil

1 big onion

3 big garlic cloves, crushed or grated

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

1 tablespoon Kashmiri chilli powder (or any chilli powder you have)

1 tablespoon powdered coriander

1 tablespoon turmeric

30 fresh curry leaves

400 g (about 14 oz) canned tomatoes or fresh chopped tomatoes or chunky tomato sauce

2 very hot green chillies or 4 medium hot

salt to taste

Put the tamarind block square into a glass or bowl and pour about 150 ml boiling water over it. Stir well until it dissolves more or less and put aside. (If you have tamarind paste/jam, start with one tablespoon and then adjust the taste; I have no idea how much of this product should be used).

Chop the onion.

Salt slightly the fish fillets or chunks.

Cut the small chillies lengthwise into thin strips or if they are bigger, into diagonal slices.

Give the tamarind liquid a good stir and strain, pressing to a fine strainer.

Heat the oil in a pan and fry the mustard seeds for 30 seconds.

Add the onion and stir fry for about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic and stir fry until the onion becomes light golden (make sure none of them burns).

Add the ground spices (chilli powder, coriander, turmeric) and the curry leaves.

Stir fry for about 1 or 2 minutes (you might need to add some oil here if the spices stick too much).

Add the strained 100 ml of tamarind “juice”, the tomatoes, the chillies and season with salt.

Let the sauce simmer for 10 more minutes.

Adjust the flavours (adding more tamarind juice if needed).

Place the fish delicately on top. Cover and cook until the fish is ready (5-10 minutes).



12 Replies to “Madras Fish Curry”

  1. Indian food was on both our minds this week, I see. Your fish curry looks very good and the garnish of fresh green chilis gives it a lovely bright colour. Other than a squid curry … I don’t cook fish with Indian spices but I really should one day.

    1. Thank you, A_Boleyn. Fish looks so boring in Indian restaurants abroad (at least from my experience), now wonder we don’t test it with Indian dishes.

  2. Tamarind paste is something that I haven’t used much even though I’ve had a jar in the pantry for quite some time now. Glad to have a recipe that uses a significant amount. The ingredients of this curry sounds quite exquisite Sissi. I do have curry leaves but unfortunately that are dried and really don’t have much of a flavor. Can they still be used in this dish? I can smell the spices from that gorgeous picture! Great recipe!

    1. Thank you so much, MJ. I was glad to discover tamarind paste was used also in Indian cuisine. Thus I use it more often. Actually what I meant here was tamarind “block” (I must correct it) which is sold in squares and then has to be dissolved and strained.
      I wanted to make this curry last weekend once more and none of the shops where I buy it had curry leaves (apparently there was a big period when no curry leaves were imported). I tried to use frozen ones and dried ones (I have both at home). Frozen ones were a bit better, but once in the dish, they didn’t seem to have much aroma. You can always try of course and I guess it’s better than nothing, but this experience made me sad because I love curry leaves and am starting to think of growing it (if I find plants). I have looked up on internet and some people say it’s possible to grow it indoors too (it will be shorter) but I’m sure you can grow it in your region outdoors. I see several US nurseries selling curry plants too.
      Anyway, this dish without curry leaves is very good too!

  3. “this recipe is so simple” check. “beautifully scented Indian treat” check, check. Starring Tamarind? check, check, check :D.

    Your curry looks so delicious Sissi!! Just oozing with saucy pizzazz. I have never used tamarind from a block before — what am I missing? I use a paste — no funky ingredients just the real deal but is the texture/taste different from the block? I must confess that I’m on a bit of tamarind kick these days… (minor addiction) – it has become my soy sauce of choice lately ;-). I will have to seek out the curry leaves … a little trip might be good to stock up on some items I just can’t find locally.

    1. Thank you so much, Kelly. I’m glad you are also a fan of this tangy product. I really love it, but I keep on using the block form for years (it’s simply fruits squashed into a square). I have never seen (or maybe I don’t remember) a recipe calling for the “jammy” form, only the block form. Out of curiosity I bought once a jar of paste/jam which contained some other stuff too (preservatives, etc.) but it expired in my fridge after several months (mould), so I decided to stick to the block form which keeps for centuries I think 🙂 Some people say the block has a more pure taste… but maybe it depends on the brand?
      I think you can buy curry leaves even by internet (I think in the US you can buy most Asian food products by internet…). As I told MJ, in warmer climates (such as yours) apparently it’s easy to grow curry leaves from small plants (sold by internet in the US).

      1. Hi Sissi, the paste I use contains citric acid (natural preservative) but that’s a good point about the longer shelf life of the block — I’ll keep an eye out. Oh my, planting curry leaves? How great would that be… I was just chatting with our youngest about a watermelon planting project (he loves watermelon) but the point I was trying to make to him, is that it’s possible to grow virtually anything/everything in this climate (even a black thumb like moi can have fun ;-). The prospects get me so excited :). Just got some Thai basil and edamame into the ground! Happy Sunday Sissi :).

        1. Hi Kelly, I guess it depends on the brand, but try the block. It feels somehow very “geeky” 😉 and my present favourite Indian cookery book calls for the block use, so I’m glad I had it.
          Kelly, you should plant curry! Your own edamame sounds like a dream… my Japanese shop sells no more Japanese edamame pods… but those imported from other Asian countries. The taste is worse… I wish I could grow edamame too! Thai basil grows well even on my small balcony so I’m sure it’ll grow like crazy in your garden!
          You will think I’m completely crazy but after a big break in curry leaves importation (frozen leaves are not even half as good… so I was furious), I bought some more yesterday and… decided to grow them from cuttings… and then keep indoors. It sounds crazy, but I have to try, so I’m trying two different methods from today and keep my fingers crossed!

  4. It’s funny the last couple of days we had here two Indians for business purposes and we had a long talk on Indian kitchen. Your curry looks delicious Sissi and as always the photo, although demanding, perfectly taken!

    1. Indian cuisine is so complex I guess you might have talked for long hours or days… Thank you so much for the compliments! Curries usually taste better than they look 😉

    1. Thank you so much, Nipponnin. I never think of fish/seafood in Indian cuisine, so it’s relatively new to mee to.

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