A Durban-style fish curry evokes memories of my childhood in Kwa-Zulu Natal and my grandmother preparing freshly-caught fish in masala pastes to fry or red-hued, gently simmered fish curries over the weekends to enjoy with the family at the table. The fresh, briny scent of the sea lingered on the fish and the house slowly filled with the aromas of spices tempering in hot oil and onions browning in rills of vegetable oil – the oily curries being a feature of old-school Durban curries.
The challenges of living under a pandemic in 2020 have meant that we, as a family, have been separated for some time now. I’m fortunate to have my mother with me in the kitchen, and watching her prepare meals that I recall from my youth, reminds me of my long-departed grandmothers. The spices are methodically placed on the counter in order of use. Curry leaves are picked from my little tree in the backyard. For my mother, the act of cooking is meditative and soothing. The fish arrives freshly caught from small-scale fishermen to my door, in much the same way my gran would buy a fresh catch from the fishermen standing with cooler boxes in the back of their bakkies after a long day out at sea.
When the mustard seeds start dancing in the oil, releasing their dusky, pungent perfume and the curry leaves fill the air with herbaceous woodiness, my home merges with my memories of a landscape so far from me now. I long to return to Kwa-Zulu Natal and its lush verdant hills, the thickets of banana trees and sugarcane dwarfing the narrow roads, the scent of afternoon rains soaking the black earth and the warm Indian Ocean lapping against my ankles as I stroll along it with a stick of ripe Victoria pineapple finely dusted in masala and salt in hand. Now, I am seven walking hand-in-hand with my grandfather as we wait in line for the rides at the beach-front amusement park. I know there’ll be candyfloss in store, and later back home, milky tea and hot samoosas and in the evening, a fish curry perhaps. The next day, we dip slices of fresh white bread in the leftover curry sauce.
It’s something I do today as well. My mother has switched to diabetic-friendly breads (SASKO has a low-GI loaf too). I toast the bread on the pan, smear it with butter and spoon over a thin layer of the fish curry sauce. For anyone who’s enjoyed Marmite or even mince on toast, this is the spicier east coast version, in my books. A taste of home, where you can taste the care.
Durban Fish Curry
This is a simplified version of my mother’s Durban-style fish curry. You can substitute fresh fish for frozen – just make sure it’s well thawed and pat it down with paper towels to dry. This recipe was developed for SASKO’s Taste The Care campaign.
80 ml vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, sliced
1 T ginger, finely grated
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
4 tsp hot masala (adjust to preference)
10 curry leaves (fresh if you can get it)
4 T tamarind (preferably black), soaked in 1 cup hot water
2 x cans tomato (chopped and peeled variety), liquidised until smooth
1 kg firm fish such as kingklip, bream, Kob or Red Roman, sliced into “cutlets”
handful fresh coriander leaves, washed
salt, to taste
- Heat oil in a wide, shallow saucepan on medium heat. Add onions and fry until translucent and soft. Add garlic and ginger and mix well.
- Add fenugreek, mustard, cumin seeds and curry leaves and fry until mustard seeds start to pop. Add masala, stir well to avoid burning and after a few seconds and tomatoes. Stir and season well with salt at this stage. Cook for 8-10 minutes, lowering heat if needed, with the lid off.
- Add the tamarind water to the tomato mixture taking care that no stones or fibres remain (you can push a spoon against the pulp to extract more flavour). Cook for another 5 -8 minutes with the lid off. You want the sauce to thicken slightly.
- Pat the fish dry with paper towels and add to the curry sauce. Lower the heat if needed and place the lid on the saucepan. Flip the fish gently with a pair of tongs halfway through. The fish cooks quickly and the time needed depends on the cut and thickness of the fish you use.
- Adjust seasoning to taste and sprinkle with torn coriander leaves.
Serve with slices of white or brown bread, rice or rotis.