by Rishidev Chaudhuri
Fish stews occupy a wonderful middle ground between delicacy and robustness, suggesting sun and warmth and brine, and yet also being mouth-filling and meaty and deeply flavorful. They’re happy at simple weeknight dinners and at parties, and can be dressed up with more varied sets of ingredients (crabs, mussels and clams, shrimp/prawn). And they’re good for the imagination, encouraging the mind to wander through seaside towns and small fishing villages strung along the coasts (looping along the Atlantic, detouring through the Mediterranean, encircling Africa and heading up the Arabian Sea, along India, then getting briefly distracted by the thousands of south-east Asian islands before encountering the grand Pacific).
The basic route to making a fish stew is simple and similar to many other soups and stews: sauté aromatics (like garlic, onions, fennel, ginger) until translucent, add some herbs/spices and stock or wine or coconut milk, simmer for a while to let the flavors blend, and then add the seafood and cook till done. Two templates I use frequently are a vaguely Mediterranean seafood stew built around fennel, anchovies, olive oil and white wine, and an Indian Ocean mixture of ginger, chilli, coconut milk, fish sauce, and tamarind.
The recipes described below are neither of these (those templates are easily found elsewhere on the Internet), though they are closer to the second and reflect the flavors of South India. The two recipes are fun to contrast: both use very similar ingredients and derive from the same culinary vocabulary, but they employ two different strategies. The first is lightly flavored and clean, a simple mix of vegetables and fish simmered in a delicate white coconut milk broth, and lives at the same Indo-Western intersection that produces the spiced versions of European roasts and stews that dot the colonial and post-colonial South Asian landscape. The second is sharper, richer, and more aromatic, and is distinguished by its use and treatment of whole spices and by the browning of the aromatics.
Both recipes are for about 1 pound or 500 grams of seafood (a good size for 2 or 3 people), with the first described using fish, and the second with prawn/shrimp. But both go well with other seafood, and are excellent with a mixture of fish, prawns and mussels/clams. If you’re using a mixture, you could add the thicker fish pieces first and the thinner pieces and shellfish a little later, so as to make sure they don’t overcook.
The first recipe needs 1 lb / 500 grams thick white fish, which you should cut into pieces (a couple of inches is a good size). Marinate the pieces in ½ teaspoon each of chilli powder and turmeric along with a bit of lime or lemon juice. After about a half hour, drain the fish and lightly fry the pieces until their color changes; you’re not trying to brown them, but cooking it a bit seems to help it hold its shape. Take the fish out and set it aside, heat more oil and add two onions cut into chunks (8-12 pieces to an onion), about eight crushed garlic cloves, a finely chopped inch of ginger, about four whole green chilies, either chopped or with slits along them, and a teaspoon of pepper, freshly ground if possible. Fry these lightly, until they soften, and then add two potatoes cut into pieces, a finely-chopped tomato, 3 cups / 750 ml of coconut milk, and salt, and cook till the potatoes are almost done. Add the fish pieces back in along with lemon juice to taste and simmer until everything is cooked (which shouldn’t take very long).
The second recipe is marginally more involved. The first step here is to briefly cook whole spices in hot oil to extract their flavors. This process, often called tempering, blooming, tadka or chaunk, is a very useful general technique that deserves both its own article and more widespread use in other culinary traditions. But, leaving a longer discussion aside for now, start by heating oil (here, coconut, but you can substitute) until quite hot, nearly smoking. Once it’s hot, toss in a teaspoon of black mustard seeds and another of fenugreek seeds. If the oil is hot enough, the mustard seeds should start to pop and crackle. If not, wait a few seconds and they’ll start going. In about ten or twenty seconds the spluttering will subside (if the spices seem about to burn move on to the next step immediately). Then add two thinly-sliced medium onions, an inch of finely chopped ginger, 6-8 crushed cloves of garlic, 4 chopped green chilies and, if you have them, a small handful of curry leaves. Fry this mixture until it turns brown. Then add a ½ teaspoon of turmeric and some salt, sauté briefly, and add 3 cups of coconut milk. Let the stew bubble for about ten to twenty minutes. Finally, add your prawns/shrimp along with lime or lemon juice (or vinegar or tamarind) and simmer till done.
Top both with chopped coriander leaves / cilantro and eat with rice, and, no matter where you are, pretend you’re on the shores of some tropical ocean, listening to the waves and watching the last boats of the day come in.