Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Fish curry

O Tama Carey is the owner of Lankan Filling Station. Her first cookbook is Lanka Food. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

When you stop to think about it, the word curry is quite clever – it’s a term that covers an almost endless array of dishes. The flavours it covers range wildly, and traditional versions are found all over Asia and bastardised versions have been adopted throughout the world. Curries can be made using pastes and powders, both of which can have very sparse or exceedingly complex ingredient lists. They can be mild, rich, hot, saucy, dry, thin or thick, highly spiced or subtle. You can spend an age roasting and grinding spices, preparing your ingredients and then more time slow-cooking. Or you can buy a paste, add coconut milk and, voila, you have an almost instant meal.

One of the benefits of all this variety is that most people feel comfortable making some sort of curry. The downside is it gives leeway to combine a mishmash of flavours that result in a generic “curry”. I am all for experimentation but it does need to be done with purposeful thought.

Which brings me to this curry, a non-traditional recipe I have made up that brings together flavours and techniques of Sri Lanka and Thailand. When you look at these two countries you see they have commonality – both are small with a predominately Buddhist population and their national cuisine profiles have echoes of hot, sour, sweet and salty.

Pepper was the predominant heat in both places until the arrival of chilli, an ingredient so immersed in the two fiery cuisines that it seems unthinkable it wasn’t always there. Tamarind and lime lend sour notes and are indispensable to both, as is sugar from the palm tree. (The Sri Lankan version, jaggery, has a molasses and smoky taste; the Thai version is much sweeter and is used more lavishly.) Salty flavour is so often there via fish or shrimp pastes – fish sauce in Thailand and Maldive fish flakes in Sri Lanka. Then just add coconut, potentially the most necessary ingredient of all.

If you look at the base ingredients of many Thai and Sri Lankan curries, they mirror each other. So to merge the two doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch at all.

The only tricky part of this recipe is the somewhat long list of ingredients for the curry paste, which includes aspects of both a Thai jungle or green curry and a Sri Lankan fish curry. You could make a big batch to freeze and then you’d be ready for an almost instant curry meal whenever you please. Once the paste is out of the way, we cook it using a Thai technique of first frying coconut cream in oil until it splits, which gives this curry a beautiful richness and depth. Then we adopt the Sri Lankan technique of just adding (an Australian) fish to the base, rather than several different ingredients as you find in Thai curries. The result is a hybrid dish that happily sits under the title of curry.


Serves 2-4

Time: 30 minutes preparation + 20 minutes cooking

For the paste

  • 12g small green chillies
  • 1 x 7cm white piece of lemongrass
  • 100g eschallots
  • 25g peeled garlic
  • 25g peeled ginger
  • 25g roasted Sri Lankan curry powder
  • 15g Maldive fish flakes
  • 4g fresh curry leaves
  • 1 bunch coriander roots

For the sauce

  • 200ml coconut cream
  • 100ml vegetable oil
  • 3 makrut lime leaves, gently crushed in your hand
  • 30g palm sugar (Sri Lankan or Thai)
  • 400ml coconut milk
  • 600g Murray cod fillet, sliced into even, bite-sized pieces

To season

  • 3-5 extra small green chillies, lightly bashed
  • fish sauce
  • salt flakes
  • white pepper
  • fresh lime juice
  • leaves from 1 bunch coriander
  • equal amounts of Thai basil leaves and dill
  1. For the paste, finely chop or slice all the ingredients and then pound them together using a mortar and pestle (you may need to do this in batches) or cheat and use a blender (no judgement). Your paste doesn’t need to be super smooth but it should be uniformly slightly fine.
  2. In a large heavy-based saucepan over a high heat, bring the coconut cream and vegetable oil to a boil. Cook for about four minutes, stirring regularly. At first it will look thick and fluffy before the oil splits out, leaving the coconut looking a little like ricotta. At this stage add in the paste and the lime leaves and turn down the heat to medium. Keep stirring and cooking until the paste darkens and the aromas are strong (about 10 minutes).
  3. Add the palm sugar and caramelise a little before adding the coconut milk and extra chillies. Bring the mix to a boil. At this stage have a taste and season well with fish sauce, salt and white pepper. The curry should have a strong flavour yet be balanced, so do your best here.
  4. Let the curry base simmer for another few minutes before adding the fish pieces. Leave the fish to gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until just cooked (this should only take a few minutes). Add a generous amount of lime juice for sourness and lift. Remove the curry from the heat and serve garnished with the fresh herbs.

Note: Curry powder and jaggery can be found in Sri Lankan grocery stores.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Curry flavour".

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