Fish Curry Sri Lankan Style

Our local market recently had fresh albacore tuna from a fisherman whose boat, the Frances Anne, sails the Atlantic from Barnegat Light. This is close enough from here to be considered “local,” though of course the sea makes it anyone’s guess how far. Whenever I can, I purchase just-caught fish from day boat fisherman, and so I was happy to find these beautiful tuna steaks from a reliable local source.  The tuna was light in color and not very dense so I decided it needed to be lightly poached to retain its flavor and moisture content.

I was casting about thinking of colorful local peppers and onions but decided that they would overwhelm the firm but delicate fish. I opted instead for a lovely fish curry with coconut milk from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, a highly accessible cookbook about the cuisine of the Indian sub-continent.  I could literally cook my way through this book since so far, every recipe has been informative and delicious. Jaffrey calls for any firm fish and while she doesn’t mention tuna, the albacore is as mild as swordfish, salmon and haddock, among her several choices.  I used less fish than she did, about ½ lb per person, which was more than adequate for us, since this is served with jasmine rice (though rice noodles would be perfect). I preferred the higher broth to fish ratio since the sauce is delicious. 

The fish curry starts with mustard seeds popping in the pan, fennel seeds and red onions lightly stewing with tomatoes and basil (a substitute for the curry leaves I don’t have) and other flavorings. With the addition of a little water, the base becomes a flavorful broth for lightly poaching the fish. When the fish is ready to flip, a little coconut milk is added to round out the flavors. Since I was using basil instead of the denser curry leaves, I add it later in the process than Jaffrey did.

Sri Lankan Fish Curry from Madhur Jaffrey

½ – ¾ lb fresh firm fish (albacore tuna, swordfish, haddock, salmon), ¾-inch thick


1 tbsp olive or canola oil

¼ tsp whole brown mustard seeds

¼ tsp whole fennel seeds

½ medium red onion, chopped (about 1/3 c)

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 medium tomato, chopped

1/8 tsp turmeric

¼ tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)

12 leaves fresh Genovese basil

½ c water

½ coconut milk

Cut the fish into individual servings and lightly salt both sides.

Warm the oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the mustard seeds. As soon as they pop (a few seconds) add the fennel seeds and onion. Cook over medium heat until the onions soften. Add the garlic and stir, cooking the garlic lightly. Add the tomato, turmeric and cayenne pepper and stir. Add the basil to wilt. Add water and ½ tsp salt and simmer gently, covered, for 10 minutes.

Adjust the heat to medium-low and place the fish in the pan until one side turns opaque. Turn the fish over and add the coconut mil to the pan, gently stirring it and spooning it over the fish until the fish is opaque all the way through, another 2-3 minutes.

Serves 2-3.

Categories: Fish, StewsTags:

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