Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Seafood broth with green chilli, coconut and lime

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

I love a seafood broth any which way. There’s something celebratory about it that feels lush and decadent and as though care has been taken – probably because a good one involves a bit of extra effort and thought.

I remember the classic Provençale fish soup, that was always on the menu at Sydney’s Bistro Moncur, served with a rouille, which was like a bouillabaisse without the pieces of seafood. It was labour intensive and rich with flavour. And then many years later when I went Italian at Berta, there was often a brodetto on the menu – a broader term but still closely related to the same ideas. I liked making a slightly lighter broth and always used fregola.

And then there are the various Asian versions that often present more as a soup, such as laksa, which is a thing of beauty and is on high rotation as one of my current food cravings. Luxurious with coconut, thick with its base paste, fragrant with spice and an excellent hit of chilli. My all-time favourite is still from Asian Gourmet in the Adelaide Central Market.

Apart from the base flavour, the next thing to think about is the seafood you wish to use. Anything with a shell that can be used to make a stock is a good place to start, as it will give your broth extra depth. Prawns or crabs are the most obvious, or you could go with some Moreton Bay bugs or lobster if you are feeling fancy. If a stock is a prep step too far, you can cheat a little by using some anchovies at the start of cooking, or adding some kombu. Both will create extra layers of flavour. I like to add some sort of mollusc: small clams or pipis are my first choice, closely followed by mussels. Then add some fish with a firm flesh, as you want something that will hold its shape. I would suggest a white fish – pink or oily ones have no place here. Calamari or cuttlefish is a good addition, as are scallops. As always, go with what looks best. The only rule and most important thing is being aware of the cooking time. No one likes a rubbery prawn.

The version I have for you here is mostly simple and has hints of Sri Lanka with spices but also borrows a little bit of Thai with the fish sauce and lime leaves. Whether you choose to follow this recipe or merely use it as inspiration for going in a different direction is up to you. All you need is a bit of time, a good base, a fine selection of seafood and something for mopping up all the brothy goodness.


Time: 1.5 hours preparation + cooking

Serves 4

  • 12 medium green prawns, shells and heads removed and retained
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 4 large banana eschalots, sliced finely
  • 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 20g ginger, finely chopped
  • 2cm base of lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 2 long green chillies, cut into rounds
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp white peppercorns
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 50g jaggery or palm sugar, chopped
  • 400ml coconut milk
  • 6 makrut lime leaves, finely sliced
  • 300g cleaned calamari, cut into chunks 
  • 400g white fleshed fish, cut into 2cm pieces
  • 400g pipis, clams or mussels
  • 1 bunch coriander, washed, leaves picked, stems finely chopped
  • fish sauce, white pepper, salt flakes and lime juice to season
  1. In a wide-based pot on a medium heat, throw in a splash of neutral oil. Once it’s hot, add the prawn shells and heads, raise the heat to high and give the shells a vigorously firm stir to extract their goodness. Once they have turned a bright orange colour (one or two minutes), add the chicken stock and bring the mix to a boil. At this stage, give it a little skim and turn the heat down to a very gentle simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Strain and set aside.
  2. Give your saucepan a quick clean, place it back over a medium heat, warm and then add in a good splash of a neutral oil. Once hot add the eschalots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and half the green chillies and gently cook until the mixture has softened (two to three minutes). Season with a little salt and pepper.
  3. Make sure your spices are coarsely ground together and then add them to the mix. Cook together for about a minute before adding the palm sugar. Let the palm sugar melt and start to caramelise (another minute), before adding the coconut milk and reserved stock. Let this mixture come to a simmer, add in the lime leaves and coriander stem, and then turn the heat to low.
  4. Let this cook for about five minutes before adding in the remaining green chilli. Have a taste – you will need to add a generous amount of fish sauce to balance the dish and may want more pepper for a bit of extra kick.
  5. Once you are happy with the flavour of your broth it’s just a matter of gently poaching your seafood. Depending on the type of fish you use you may need to add this first or last, the calamari and prawns can go in together and save the clams or pipis or mussels until near the end. Finish with a very generous amount of lime juice.
  6. Once all the seafood is cooked and ready, either serve it in a large sharing bowl or dish it out individually.
  7. Strew your coriander leaves on top to finish serve with some rice or noodles on the side.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Seafood surrender".

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