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Kerala-Style Coconut Fish Curry

Fish Curry 2

Fish Curry 4

By Tim Hazell

Goods from the Far East, status symbols for wealthy Europeans, reached northern shores by the cargo load during the Renaissance expansion of transoceanic trade. Rare botanicals such as the coconut had appeared as illustrations in print by the sixteenth century.

The coconut is an enigma among exotics. Its origins are not clearly understood. Although there are sporadic accounts by invading Spanish conquistadors of its presence on the west coast of the Isthmus of Panama, its cultivation had occurred in Asia and Africa centuries prior. Medieval poetry and prose from the Arab Empire extolled its culinary and cosmetic virtues.

Marco Polo recorded his observations of coconut palms along the Oriental Silk Road. The seafaring Portugese, who contributed much to traders’ languages, dubbed the large husk with its hidden trove of rich flesh and sweet water “coco,” their children’s term for a grinning face, and “nut” from the English terminology. Polished and gold mounted coconut shells were cherished items until they became common with the introduction of more efficient transport.

Every part of the coconut palm has a potential use. Coconut water, coconut meat, oil, husk, trunk, fronds, and roots provide edible and nonedible commodities, consumed or utilized locally and exported to centers for processing in manufactured goods like soap.

A survey of early American cookbooks confirms that fresh coconuts were readily available, supplied by reliable vessels from the West Indies. Here is a traditional recipe from the South Indian state of Kerala. Fish fillets are cooked in a bath of coconut milk, fresh herbs, chile, and spice. The richness of the coconut milk imparts a silky consistency to the curry, adding body with none of the heavy characteristics of cream. Chicken breast or shrimp may be substituted.


Kerala-Style Coconut Fish Curry



1-1/2 lb firm fish fillets, cut into bite-sized portions

2 tsp turmeric

Juice of 1 lime

Good pinch of sea salt



2 tbsp oil

2 tsp cumin seeds

1 medium onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup freshly chopped coriander

1-1/2 inch piece ginger, peeled and shredded

1 chile, seeded and finely chopped

2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

Good pinch of black pepper

1-15 oz can coconut milk

Juice of 1 lime


Combine fish, turmeric, lime juice, and salt in a bowl. Refrigerate and allow to marinate 30 minutes. Heat a large wok or heavy saucepan and add oil. Add cumin seeds, and allow to brown over medium heat, about 30 seconds.

Add onions, garlic, half the coriander, ginger, and chile. Lower the flame, and fry gently, stirring until ingredients are aromatic and an even golden brown. Add turmeric, sugar, salt, and black pepper. Stir in the coconut milk, bring to a boil, and simmer until slightly reduced and thickened.

Add the fish fillets and lime juice. Continue cooking about 5–7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Top with the remaining coriander.

Serve with a side vegetable and plain steamed rice, preferably basmati.


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