Kerala-Style Coconut Fish Curry

Kerala-Style Coconut Fish Curry

By Tim Hazell

Goods from the Far East, status symbols for wealthy Europeans, reached northern shores by the cargo load during the Renaissance expansion of transoceanic trade. Rare botanicals such as the coconut had appeared as illustrations in print by the sixteenth century.


The coconut is an enigma among exotics, as its origins are not clearly understood. Although there were sporadic accounts by invading Spanish conquistadors of its presence on the west coast of the Isthmus of Panama, its cultivation had occurred in Asia and Africa centuries prior to this. Medieval poetry and prose from the Arab Empire extolled its culinary and cosmetic virtues.


Marco Polo recorded his observations of coconut palms along the Oriental Silk Road. The seafaring Portugese, who contributed much to traders’ languages, dubbed the large husk with its hidden trove of rich flesh and sweet water “coco,” their children’s term for grinning face, and “nut” from English terminology. Polished and gold-mounted coconut shells were cherished items until they became common with the introduction of more efficient transport.
Early American cookbooks confirm that fresh coconuts were readily available, supplied by reliable vessels from the West Indies. Here is a traditional recipe from the South Indian state of Kerala. Fish fillets are cooked in a bath of coconut milk, fresh herbs, chile, and spice. The richness of the coconut milk imparts a silky consistency to the curry, adding body with none of the heavy characteristics of cream. Substitute chicken breast if preferred.



Kerala-Style Coconut Fish Curry


1-1/2 lb. firm fish fillets, cubed or pieces
2 tsp. turmeric
Juice of one lime
Good pinch sea salt


2 tbsp. oil
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup freshly chopped coriander
1-1/2 inch piece ginger, peeled and shredded
2 green or red Serrano chilies, slit
2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Good pinch black pepper
1-15 oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
Juice of one lime
Topping: One medium onion, sliced and caramelized


Combine fish, turmeric, lime juice, and salt in a bowl. Refrigerate and allow to marinate 30 minutes. Heat a large wok or heavy saucepan and add oil. Add cumin seeds and allow to brown over medium heat, about 30 seconds. Add onions, garlic, half the coriander, ginger, and chilies. Lower the flame and fry gently, stirring, until ingredients are aromatic and an even, golden brown. Add turmeric, sugar, salt, and black pepper. Stir in the coconut milk, bring to the boil, and simmer until slightly reduced and thickened. Add the fish fillets and lime juice. Continue cooking about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. For the topping, heat oil in a medium frypan and brown a few cumin seeds. Add the onion slices and a teaspoon of sugar. Caramelize over low heat until shriveled and a rich brown color, taking care not to burn. Add to the curry. Garnish with the remaining coriander. Serve with a side vegetable and plain steamed rice, preferably basmati.

Variations: A few spinach leaves or chopped tomato added while the curry is simmering.