Fresh seafood should not be drowned in heavy spices. Here's a way to get it right.

Aperitifs were served under the marquée at the back of the house. It was hot; the locals wanted a fan switched on. Jivi took out a Japanese paper fan and fluttered it stylishly. But I was from freezing Delhi and needed to thaw my bones. I didn't even break a sweat.

All one could see were trees — palms laden with baby coconuts, some with vines wound around the trunks, bearing green peppercorn peduncles. Spreading mango trees, not yet in flower; champa, gardenia and all manner of fragrant white flowering trees: Bay laurels, pink guava and chikoo trees. And in the near distance, the bright light blue glimmer of the pool. This was paradise enough.

Then lunch arrived. Apart from steamed rice there were fish curries unlike any I had eaten before, crisply fried surmai rechado, kingfish, and a green vegetable that was so sweet and succulent that I had to ask how it was made.

Surprising dish

I asked how everything was cooked, but this leafy dish was surprising: it looked like spinach but didn't taste of it. It had none of the astringency and slightly bitter taste that home cooked greens tend to have. Apparently there was a handful of spinach but the bulk was a combination of all the leaves growing in the kitchen garden, including pumpkin leaves and red chaulai, amaranth. It had been cooked with no oil. The fried fish had been cut crosswise, in slices, as most serious fish-eating people usually do, then coated in a strong red spice paste, covered with semolina, and shallow fried. The crust was like a thin beige-brown shell and dark red recheio paste showed through the cracks. Recheio can be a bit overpowering, but this was not only home-made, it was judiciously applied and gave just a piquant edge.

The curries have a history. I had been told that Pritam, who runs a small bar and restaurant next door, made the best crab curry in North Goa. So she was persuaded to send us some. Alas she couldn't, because it was too late; she had already been to the fish market. We, poor things, had to make do with what she had: cockles, mussels and mackerel; khube, tisri and bangda.

Delicate spices

The cockles were mild and marrow-like but the curry was unremarkable, given the toil that is required to harvest khube. Not just sweat but blood is let, scraping them out. The bangda was excellent, in a basic curry that was mild and flavourful. But the tisri! Pritam, whom I had several chats with, said it was just called “sookha”, the same as the crab sookha we'd been eating elsewhere and which I'd tried inexpertly to replicate. It wasn't a curry because there was no sauce; the spices were stuck to the clams, but not dry and browned. I think it's a crime to drown fresh seafood in very sharp spices and she had got it absolutely right. The spices were delicate, almost sweet, and set off the tender clams. She had used some tomatoes, which I think can be skipped, but it was possibly the best “curry” I've had in a long time. It's unlikely that I'll find clams in the local fish shop back home in Delhi, but I'll try it with prawns, minus the tomatoes.

Tisri Sookha (masala clams)/Prawns Sookha (masala prawns)

Serves 4

Ingredients

400g tisri (clam) or 250g medium prawns, shelled and deveined

2 tbsp vegetable oil

2 medium onions, chopped small

1 large tomato, chopped small

1/4 tsp turmeric, haldi

3 green chillies, chopped small

1 tbsp green coriander, chopped

1 small coconut, grated

Salt

Method: If using clams, prepare by washing and soaking several times in water to remove sand. With a sharp knife, prise open each shell and discard empty half. If using prawns, wash and drain. Heat oil and sauté onion - do not brown. Add tomatoes. When tomatoes dry, add clams or prawns and 3-4 tbsp water. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add turmeric, green chillies, coriander, coconut and salt. Cook 5 minutes, till fairly dry.

No Oil Fish Curry

Serves 4

Ingredients

400 g fish, sliced and washed

3/4 onion

Salt

To be ground together

1 medium coconut grated

1 tbsp whole coriander seeds

35 Goan chillies

1/4 tsp turmeric

1 tbsp tamarind pulp

1/4 medium onion

Method: Rub salt on fish and keep aside. Grate onion and mix well with salt. Mix ground spices with water, enough for gravy plus evaporation about 2 cups. Bring to boil and simmer for 15 minutes, or until a "cream" starts forming at the edges. Stir in salted grated onion. Simmer for 5 minutes and add fish. Cook till done, about 5 minutes.

Greens and Amaranth Bhaji

Serves 4

Ingredients

250g amaranth, red chaulai

250g spinach

250g leaves of turnip/ white radish

250 pumpkin leaves

1 small coconut, grated

Salt

4 green chillies, slit

Pinch of sugar

Method: Wash and chop all vegetable (other leafy vegetables can be substituted.) In a large wok, mix chopped vegetables with grated coconut and salt. Rub well. Throw in green chillies, cover and cook on high heat until juices run and start bubbling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender. Stir in sugar and serve hot, with steamed rice.

Recheio Masala

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients

20 dried chillies

4 cloves

20 cloves garlic

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp peppercorns

2” piece cinnamon

1 tsp turmeric powder

2 tsp tamarind pulp

Malt vinegar, about 1/2 cup

Method: Grind all spices together, using vinegar to moisten. Traditionally a stone “rogdo” was used, but an electric grinder does the job. This spice paste can be stored for months in an airtight jar.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.

Keywords: seafood recipes