Grilled dry curry fish
I know it is significantly easier to use a curry paste from a jar, and no doubt some shop-bought products are excellent. But with food processors and a fairly ready availability of fresh base ingredients, it’s hard to beat a paste made fresh.
A good portion of Australia is subtropical, which matches South-East Asia’s climate and ideal growing conditions for the fragrant ingredients of curry paste. This version is strongly based on galangal, a rhizome similar to ginger. Galangal is a root that spreads underground and regularly needs thinning. When the root sprouts and is young, it is particularly tender and sweet, with almost lemon and flower-like notes. It’s a long way from the gnarly rock-like root we have become more accustomed to as the plant gets older and the flavour more peppery.
The preparation of this paste and the relatively short cooking period retains the freshness and vibrancy of the young galangal, which can otherwise easily become lost. And while food processors are a reasonable and much faster method of processing the paste, do use a mortar and pestle if you have the time and inclination. The result will be far superior.
Cooking in a banana leaf provides an odd mix of hard grill on the outside while steaming the inside of the package and picking up smoky notes from the fire. If you can’t get access to a good, fresh banana leaf that still has moisture, it might be best to simply rub the paste over the top of the fish fillet and place it directly under a grill.
Galangal can almost directly replace ginger in most recipes. So if you do come across galangal as young and tender as what is pictured here, play around with substituting it in recipes while the going is good.
Grilled dry curry fish
60g dried long red chillis
200g fresh long red chillis
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp white pepper seeds
40g shrimp paste
300ml coconut cream
150ml grapeseed oil
60ml fish sauce, plus some extra for sprinkling
70g palm sugar
500g fillet white fish, such as snapper
1 large green banana leaf
1 Lebanese cucumber
4 kaffir lime leaves
Soak the dried chillies in cold water for 30 minutes.
Peel and chop the galangal, garlic and shallots. Put a small amount of shallot and galangal aside to serve with the finished dish.
Chop the fresh chillies and take the stem off the soaked chillies and shake the excess seeds out of them. Chop them to the same size as the fresh chillies, then combine the galangal, garlic, shallots and chilli in a food processor and pulse until you have a fairly smooth paste. Or you could use a mortar and pestle to make the paste.
Lightly toast the coriander and pepper seeds, then grind them in a spice grinder. Add this mix to the chilli paste, along with the shrimp paste.
In a heavy-based pot, combine half the coconut cream with the grapeseed oil and cook until the mixture splits completely and starts to brown. Add the shrimp and chilli paste and cook, constantly stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Cook this out for about 10-15 minutes until most of the moisture is gone and the oil starts foaming around the edges of the paste.
Add the fish sauce and let the mixture simmer for 20 seconds before adding the rest of the coconut cream and bringing it to a simmer.
Once the mixture is simmering, add the palm sugar and cook until it becomes a thick paste. Pull this mixture off the heat and let it sit for five minutes before adding the juice of two limes and adjusting with more sugar and fish sauce as required.
Let the mixture cool almost completely before wrapping your fish.
Sprinkle fish sauce over the fish fillet and let it sit for 30 minutes.
Cut the fillet into two. Gently wet the banana leaf and spread it out with the curved side facing up. Cut the leaf in half and smear some of the curry paste onto it before placing the fish on top and coating with more paste. Repeat with the other fillet portion. Wrap both fillets loosely in the banana leaf. You should be left with two tidy parcels.
Place these parcels fold-side down on a medium-to-high grill and cook for five minutes before turning them over and finishing for a further three minutes.
Let the parcels rest for a minute before transferring them onto serving plates. Slice the cucumber into quarters lengthwise. Part each banana leaf, then top the fish with half the cucumber, some raw sliced shallot, finely shredded raw galangal and finely shredded kaffir lime leaf. Add half a lime to each plate to finish.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Grilled dry curry fish".
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