This is one of my favourite curries – salted fish and vegetables curry, with beans and anchovies. It’s only served on Sundays at the Sultania Restaurant on Lebuh Queen, right smack in Penang’s Little India. I have only had it twice or maybe thrice; somehow my trips back to Penang haven’t allowed for all that [...]
This is one of my favourite curries – salted fish and vegetables curry, with beans and anchovies. It’s only served on Sundays at the Sultania Restaurant on Lebuh Queen, right smack in Penang’s Little India. I have only had it twice or maybe thrice; somehow my trips back to Penang haven’t allowed for all that many Sunday lunches at this restaurant. But I can tell from the first taste that this is good curry – better even than the Nyonya salted fish curry we are more familiar with. The saltiness of the salted fish lends depth and an earthiness that is deeply satisfying, and the vegetables (turnips, brinjals, tomatoes) absorbs the flavours and its different textures add contrast. I love the beans too, and they use at least two different types.
This dish is an Indian-Muslim dish that is a home staple, but it was only when my former colleague Faridah Begum featured that recipe in her column that it occurred to me to try cooking it at home. Even then, I procrastinated for months. There is a long list of ingredients, for one thing. And of course it finally took a deadline for me to get my act together, and attempt to recreate this curry for an article on Indian-Muslim food in Penang.
I tried buying the ingredients in a hypermarket, but it was impossible to get salted fish bones – yup bones, not whole salted fish. I also couldn’t find mochokotai (that’s Tamil for butter beans), plus I didn’t know what they look like or taste like. So off to the wet market I went with my colleague and friend Mumtaj and her mother. They are regulars at the biggest wet market in KL, in Pudu. I tagged along on their weekly marketing trip, and Mumtaj’s mother took me to the Indian provision shop to get my mochokotai. Then, we went looking for the salted fish bones, and there were plenty for sale and they weren’t dry and dark like the ones in the hypermarket.
I actually like going to the Pudu Market, even though we are at the mercy of the elements in this open air market and there are puddles to navigate on its uneven grounds. There is always lots to buy, and the market folks are friendly. I just don’t remember to shop at the markets anymore, now that the hypermarts are so conveniently close and accessible.
Back home, I soaked the salted fish bones, sliced onions and chillies, and cut up the vegetables. It’s not a difficult dish to make, just a long list of ingredients to assemble. Once the preparation was done, it was all just a matter of slowly boiling everything till the oil floated to the top, and the beans were cooked. My curry is not as good as Sultania’s, but this recipe is definitely a keeper. It actually became more delicious the next day as the flavours developed and intensified. With its salty spicy combination, it’s a moreish dish, and you could be piling on the rice just so you could have more of the curry. Fortunately, I am not averse to carbo… maybe it’s time again for another pot…
Salted Fish Curry
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 2 onions, sliced
- 1 clove garlic
- 5 green chillies, halved and seeded
- 100g fish curry powder
- 2 tomatoes, cut into 6 wedges each
- 300-400g salted fish bones, soaked for 30 minutes
- 50g ikan bilis, washed and drained
- 100g butter beans (or mochokotai in Tamil)
- 1 radish, cut into wedges
- 2 round brinjals, cut into 4 wedges each
- 1/2 cup thick tamarind juice
- 1 cup thick coconut milk
Heat the oil and sauté the fenugreek seeds, onions and curry leaves.
Add the garlic, green chillies and fish curry powder.
Stir until fragrant.
Add all the salted fish bones and ikan bilis, and then the beans and vegetables.
Then add the tamarind juice and coconut milk, and enough water to cover the ingredients.
Bring the curry to a slow boil, and let it simmer slowly for about 40 minutes, or until the beans are cooked.
Serve with hot rice.
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