The inspiration for this wonderful dish came from a recent Facebook post by Poonam Bachhav. We love curries in various guises and formats, and this recipe offered an opportunity to experiment.
Living in the Cape Town area in South Africa has its advantages. In terms of food-related advantages, the Cape Colony was established as a halfway station for replenishment of shipping traffic on the spice route. We have a fusion of culinary arts known as the Cape Malay cooking style as a direct result, not to mention the availability of interesting herbs and spices. However, the availability is seasonal, and not all the herbs and spices of the Orient are available here. We also tend to fall into culinary habits and stop experimenting.
In this case, the Gujarati Kadhi recipe really interested me. While it is a dish on the sweet side, and vegetarian to boot, I thought that such a dish may serve as the basis for a fragrant fish curry. I am a serious meat eater, but not averse to using purely vegetarian dishes as a side to a main meal of meat, especially as a side to meat done on the coals. It is summer here and braais are the in thing. This dish also goes easy on spices, stepping away from the big, bold flavors of the Cape Malay or Durban style curries that we are used to here. It also provides a welcome change from the traditionally heavy meals that we eat here.
I was so excited about the possibilities of this dish that bought a fresh hake and had it filleted. This fish is light and cooks to a flaky consistency, which presents a risk of disappearing into the dish when overcooked. My thoughts went out to people living inland, who may not have access to fresh sea fish. This recipe will also work with carp or bass. Carp also flakes when cooked. All the inland fishes will work, but the skins need to be removed, else the food will taste muddy. Carp and hake need to be firmed up, bass not so much, as it is a game fish. Do this by thawing the fish to room temperature, then placing it on a paper towel and salting with coarse or rock salt to cure for at least an hour. The salt will extract some juices from the fish and the flesh will firm up.
This specific dish is made with curd, buttermilk, or yogurt as the main body of the sauce. This sauce is flavored with spices of choice, then thickened with gram flour. I reckoned that such a thick sauce would be wonderful for poaching delicate fish. The only problem that I had was that such a dish would be mushy, with no texture. However, that problem was soon solved by the inclusion of peas and sugar snap peas. These also cook fast and provide sweetness instead of the palm sugar in the original recipe.
As this was a new experiment, I decided on a simple flatbread made of yogurt, wheat flour, water, and salt to serve as a side dish. This is an easy dough and can be made earlier to allow time for resting.
For the curry
800 g - 1 kg fresh hake fillets, cubed
1 cup plain yogurt
2 shallots, roughly chopped
2 thumbs fresh garlic, grated
¼ bell pepper, diced
3 dried lime leaves
3 dried chilies
A thumb of fresh ginger, grated
Thumb length of cinnamon bark
½ - 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ cup fresh peas
½ cup sugar snap peas
2x star aniseed
4 cardamom pods, bruised
1x finger length lemongrass stalk cut lengthwise and bruised
1 ½ teaspoon garam masala
Some cayenne pepper or chili powder to taste
Sprig of coriander leaves for garnish
½ lemon or whole lime for the zest and the juice
2 - 4 tablespoons gram flour to thicken the sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Water as required
For the bread
1 cup wheat flour
½ cup plain yogurt
½ teaspoon salt
Water as required
Cube the fish, lay the cubes on some paper towel, salt it using coarse salt, then set it aside to cure for at least an hour, preferably longer. Now the bread dough may be made and also set aside to rest. Take care not to make the dough sloppy, as it will go softer as it rests. You need soft dough for this bread.
Fry the whole spices in a dollop of oil or ghee until fragrant. Add the grated ginger, garlic, and dried chilies and fry until fragrant, then add the onions. Fry until translucent, then add the yogurt. Lower the heat and add the turmeric, lemongrass, and lime leaves.
This is where things may get tricky. The thickness of the sauce needs to be adjusted by adding the gram flour. Cornflour may also be used. This is the last time that the dish can be stirred. After the fish is added, stirring will break the fish up into a mushy mess. The salt should now be adjusted to taste, as well as pepper and spiciness using chili powder. Add the garam masala, the zest from half a lemon or a whole lime at this point too. The lemon or lime juice may be added later, just before serving.
Once you are happy with the taste and flavor profile of the dish, add the peas, sugar snap peas, then the fish. Make sure that the mix is boiling before adding the fish. Turn down the heat and wait five minutes, then shut the stove off. There will be enough heat in the sauce to cook the peas and fish to al-dente consistency.
To make the bread, simply take golf-ball-sized dollops of dough and roll it out to resemble a pancake. Fry this in a dry pan until done. The yogurt in the dough gives the bread a roti-like consistency.
Dish up and serve with the chopped coriander leaves as garnish.
Authored by Johan Zietsman
Last edited on 29 November 2021