A wonderful fish curry (and other food that haunts me)


A wonderful fish curry (and other food that haunts me)

ANNELIESE BURGESS tries to recreate great dishes from memory, but they can never really compete with that memory. Except the old Sam's Café's thin chops and a miraculous (and super fast) Indian fish curry.


THE pumpkin and salmon pasta served at a small restaurant in greater Melville in the 1990s is something I returned to night after night, until one day the restaurant was suddenly closed.

Then there was the eggplant and mozzarella toast at a simple Italian place in Long Street, Cape Town. It was cheap enough for frequent pilgrimages when I was a student at the University of Cape Town and began my love affair with eggplant. I have memories of rainy winter days at the scratched melamine tables with a pot of tea, a book and this incredible sandwich on a white plate with a red napkin.

I've tried to recreate it time and again, but can't come up with what I remember. I'm missing a secret ingredient. Is it basil? Tomato? A second type of cheese, maybe provolone? Pesto? Or mere nostalgia?

I had more success with the lamb chops from the then Sam's Café in Melville, the ones with the cucumber and mint raita. The secret lies in the almost paper-thin sliced ​​meat and a quick visit to a very hot pan.

Then there was the seafood curry which I made time and again at one stage. It came from a slow cooker recipe book that disappeared from my bookshelf without a trace. The thing I remember is that the soup simmered all day long. At night, when I walked into my impersonal, lonely, dark flat in Killarney (which sometimes destroyed my soul), at least there was the smell of food. Then, into the hot soup I dipped my packet of mussels, prawns or pieces of firm white fish wrapped in white paper by the Fisherman's Deli in Dunkeld. And within minutes I could eat.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Matt Preston's recipe Mangalorean Fish Curry in his cookbook The Simple Secrets to Cooking Everything Better is as close as I can get to that comforting, miraculous dish. 

Preston writes: “There is a special place in my heart for the Mangalorean food found south of Mumbai (and obviously in the city as well). I think it is because this diverse cuisine has such a love of sourness, whether it is coming from something as simple as lime juice, tamarind or yoghurt, or something as esoteric as green mango powder."

This recipe uses limes, so there are no esoteric ingredients, except maybe the curry leaves, but they are not hard to find in Indian stores. I have also used bay leaves, although the curry leaves provide a more authentic taste.

This is a super simple, super quick and super tasty dinner.

Mangalorean fish curry


  • 700g firm white fish, cut into blocks (frozen hake works perfectly well, but try to get thicker pieces)
  • ½ t turmeric
  • juice of half a lime
  • 5 garlic cloves, crushed or ground
  • 2 cm piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 big onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp coconut oil (although any oil without a strong taste will work, and ghee too)
  • 6 long green chillies (scrape out the seeds if you don't like too much heat)
  • 1 tomato, finely chopped
  • 1 clove
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 8 curry leaves
  • 1 x 400 ml can of coconut milk
  • freshly ground black pepper


  1. Smear the fish with half of the turmeric, the lime juice and some salt.
  2. Make a paste with the ginger and garlic in a pestle and mortar.
  3. Heat the oil on a low heat in a heavy-bottom pot and fry the onion and chillies until the onion is translucent. Then add the ginger and garlic and fry until caramelised. Add the tomato, spices and curry leaves. Cook for another 2 minutes.
  4. Add 250 ml of the coconut milk, the rest of the turmeric, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for a few minutes then add the pieces of fish and the rest of the coconut milk and simmer for a further 10 minutes (or until the fish is cooked). Add a little water if the sauce gets too thick.
  5. Remove the whole spices before serving the curry with steamed basmati rice and poppadoms.

I usually top it with finely chopped coriander and a squirt of lime juice. Or sometimes it's a scoop of yoghurt I'm looking for.

A twist to Preston's recipe

I have adapted this recipe a few times using a combination of fish and cauliflower (or just cauliflower if you want to make it vegetarian).

Here is a recipe with those elements from Australian chef Matt Moran. He adds cinnamon, mustard seeds and dill to his. It works great.

Pantry talk

What is the best oil for Indian dishes?

Arun Kumar, executive chef at Dishoom, the Indian restaurant chain with a cult following in Britain, says ghee is always a good option — not only because it is a traditional ingredient and therefore ensures an authentic taste, but because it has a very high smoke point.

Certain oils are used in specific regional cuisines — such as mustard oil for Bangladeshi curries, roasted peanut oil to finish off Maharashtran dishes and roasted sesame or coconut oil for South Indian dishes.

But, says Kumar, rapeseed oil is a good neutral oil to carry the complex spices of Indian cuisine. Not only is it cheap, it is also widely available (also here in South Africa) and suitable for vegans.


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