Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pan-Fried Tilapia with Lemongrass-Tamarind Cauliflower Curry


The title may be quite a mouthful but this dish is equally a mouth-pleaser. A quick taste of this curry sauce will feel like a tiny tart bomb exploded in your mouth--courtesy of the tamarind and lime juice combo. But as the initial shock of sourness passes, the multi-layered flavors will begin to shine through, making this dish more than just a one-trick curry.

Since we are on the subject, what exactly is a "curry"? Many people usually associate the word "curry" with Indian cuisine and the generic flavor that they may have tasted with dishes cooked using the equally generic and widely available "curry powder."  To me, a curry is not just a single defining flavor of sauce but is really made up of layers upon layers of flavors that are reflected by the many exotic spices that are typically used to concoct it. A curry is really an amalgam of flavors that will get your taste buds buzzing with delight. It could be sour, salty, spicy, bitter, sweet, umami, a mix and match and possibly all of the above. Simply put, a curry is utterly more complex than the very simple 5-letter word that is used to describe it.

For all intents and purposes and full disclosure, I came up with this particular dish as I was rummaging through my refrigerator to get rid of any leftovers that have accumulated over the week. I came across a container of curry paste that I had made a few days ago but never got around to using it for an actual dish. The base for this paste was lemongrass and turmeric plus a bunch of spices. Here are the ingredients:

5 stalks lemongrass
1 onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 thumb-sized piece of  galangal (ginger can be used as a replacement)
1 small bunch of cilantro (stems plus leaves)
2 tablespoons turmeric powder
1 tablespoon mix of cumin and coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds
1 teaspoon crushed black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (peanut oil would be a better choice)

To use the lemongrass, cut off about an inch off the root side and all of the top green-colored stems, leaving the middle white part. Lemongrass is tough and for it to blend well, you first need to cut it into thin circular strips across the stem. Blend all of the ingredients above until smooth and you get a pasty consistency. Now you have your curry paste. What you do with it is pretty flexible as any combination of proteins and ingredients can be used. And best of all, this curry paste is usable for at least 2 weeks if it is kept properly in the refrigerator. Now you have options.

A quick taste of the paste did not reveal a strong enough tartness from the lime juice. But that's OK because I had some tamarind on hand and using the juice, I managed to amp up the tart quotient quite a bit. Here is the rest of the dish:

1 head of cauliflower (cut into small florets)
1 medium-sized carrot (cut thin)
5 -6 button mushrooms (quartered)
1/2 cup coconut milk
4 tablespoons of tamarind juice
4 tilapia fillets
turmeric powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt

First, let's marinate the tilapia in 2 tablespoons of tamarind juice, salt and turmeric for about an hour or so. When it is ready, pan-fry the fish by coating it with flour. You'll get a nice yellowish coloring on the fish courtesy of the turmeric. Make sure you blanch the vegetables first in salted boiling water to slightly soften them. You don't want to go too far with the blanching as further cooking in the curry will turn them into mush. To make the curry sauce, combine the cauliflower, carrot, mushroom, chili powder and the rest of the tamarind juice with about 4 tablespoons of the curry paste that we made earlier plus the coconut milk. Stir to mix everything well and season with salt to taste.

To serve, cook some basmati rice and add the tilapia plus the curry sauce. And there you have it, lemongrass-tamarind cauliflower curry with pan-fried tilapia. Enjoy!

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