New York Herald Tribune journalist Henry Morton Stanley finally found his rock star explorer in the village market of Ujiji on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika on November 10, 1871. It would have been the onset of a hot, humid summer in the southern hemisphere, and after his gentlemanly “Dr. Livingston, I presume,” the two men surely didn’t sit down for glasses of iced lemonade. Most likely a porter boiled a kettle over a small charcoal brazier, and the strangers acquainted themselves in tropical fashion over cups of hot tea. In our current Western world of ice cubes and air conditioning, we have missed the knowledge gained from hot climates where warm beverages and spicy foods cool the body. Whether Mexico, India or Africa, people living in the hottest places eat the spiciest food. Why? When you ingest warming spices or beverages, the body is cooled by perspiration, the natural way to chill. Chiles and spices cool in summer and warm in winter.
Beautifully composed Indian curries often begin with the hallowed trinity of mashed garlic, ginger and green chili. The fragrance of these seasonings gently sautéing in coconut oil or ghee will transport you straight to the Taj. These are called the “green” or fresh spices, and the dry spices of turmeric, cumin and coriander follow. Once you add a few tomatoes, a pour of luxurious coconut milk and simmer away, you have flavor from the Malabar Coast. Add some boneless, skinless white fish, a handful of cilantro and a few minutes later sip a magically spiced stew. Add a squeeze of lime juice, a side of fluffy Basmati rice and sample a sublimely exotic tradition. This perfect combination takes only minutes to prepare, once you give onions time to soften, sauté and simmer. It’s pure, unadulterated, inexpensive and a million times better and healthier than something out of a box or a frozen packet.
Coconut oil, coconut milk and turmeric are current wellness darlings, while garlic, ginger and chilies have long been known to have antibacterial properties and digestive benefits. Chili peppers contain more active Vitamin C than almost any other fruit. Every time I serve one of these curries, I feel the need to spread the word. So here’s a recipe to begin:
Golden Fish Curry
1 large onion (10 oz., two cups sliced)
2 generous tablespoons coconut oil or vegetable oil
4-5 cloves garlic
½ -1 green Serrano chili (remove seeds for less heat)
1 ¼ inches fresh ginger root
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon garam masala
1/8 teaspoon Indian chili powder or hot paprika (optional)
1 teaspoon curry powder (optional)
2 large tomatoes (2 cups peeled, seeded and diced) or 14 oz. can tomatoes
2/3 cup coconut milk (5.6 oz.) (Chaokoh brand recommended)
12-14 oz. skinless white fish such as cod
Salt, cilantro, lime
Peel and quarter the onion; slice thinly. Gently sweat the onion in coconut oil, covering with waxed butter wrappers or parchment until tender. Remove paper and continue to sauté until onion is golden (8-10 minutes). Meanwhile bash peeled, sliced garlic, ginger and chili with a generous pinch of coarse salt in a mortar until reduced to a paste (about 3 tablespoons). In lieu of a stone mortar, grate the ginger on a microplane and finely chop garlic and chili. Combine turmeric, garam masala, optional chili powder and curry powder in a small cup.
Once the onion is golden and sizzling, add the ginger paste and sauté a few minutes until it smells “cooked”. Tip in the turmeric mixture and sauté stirring until the dry spices release fragrance. Add the tomatoes plus a little water and simmer until the tomatoes have pulped. Add the coconut milk and continue to simmer 5 minutes. Taste for seasonings; add salt if needed and a pinch of sugar if the mixture is too spicy. Add the chunked fish and cook 5 minutes or until the fish flakes. Stir in a generous handful of chopped cilantro just before serving. Add lime juice to taste.