Tonight I’m having a special guest over for dinner and like most people I know, he loves Indian food. I’m always delighted when I meet people here who share the same adoration I have for curry. Every time I get to know a curry lover, friendship ignites, prejudiced as that may be. I always say the only thing that’s sure to turn a great curry into a phenomenal curry, is sharing it.
Today I’m sharing a recipe that I taught to a lovely group of Italian women who are just as enthused as I am about Indian food. This is one of my favourite recipes because it embodies the two things I love, shellfish and spices. After years of chopping and changing, adding a new ingredient here, omitting another there, whilst trying different methods, I feel like I’ve finally perfected this dish to the best of my ability and I trust it implicitly.
There’s something to be said about cooking shellfish, they are very delicate and the timing when cooking them is extremely important. Cook them for too long and you will yield a rubbery texture whereas if cooked correctly, the meat should be firm but still tender and succulent, the distinct sweetness of the flesh should still come through. The thing to remember is that the meat of shellfish while beautiful to eat, consists of a very mild flavour that extensive cooking destroys in a flash. In my opinion, shellfish when cooked in a curry sauce needs no more than six to eight minutes, three/four on each side. Switch off the heat and the piping hot curry sauce will continue the cooking process because liquid heat transfers heat faster than any other medium.
The bulk of the flavour comes from the shell itself, that’s were the smell of the ocean is and the worst thing to do when cooking with shellfish is to discard the shells without making use of all that free flavour. For this dish, I clean the prawns by removing all veins, heads and shells with the exception of the tail. I keep the tail on because the tail is not tedious to remove when eating, but it will continue to release flavour in the pot, intensifying the strength of the sauce. To have to remove the tail whilst eating is a small sacrifice to make, when reaping the rewards this small prawn tail is capable of contributing to the dish. I keep the shells and heads that have been washed then fry them in a hot oil and salt, the salt helps to extract all the flavour from the shells. Then I add water to make the simplest of simple “stocks” allowing the water to simmer, not boil because boiling kills and destroys flavour, while simmering much like poaching, transfers flavour. Flavour is then moved from shells to water and this liquid concentrate is thereafter used for the curry. Of course this is not an authentic stock, which is perfect for what I need because this liquid will not alter the flavour of the curry that a typical fish stock will do, given the bouquet of herbs incorporated into most stocks.
Another important note to remember when cooking a curry made with shellfish is that you can strengthen the flavours by adding ingredients that are not authentically “Indian”. It is perfectly alright to add ingredients like shrimp paste, fish sauce, even oyster sauce which are traditionally used in Asian cuisine. You will be surprised how these ingredients can help an Indian shellfish or fish curry develop concentration and depth. I know that many of us do not keep these ingredients at all times, so a good way to substitute the addition of shrimp paste is to add a few uncooked prawns to the onion, garlic and tomato base before blending to give this curry sauce a new dimension. In this recipe I roughly chop onions and fry it with clean whole garlic pods, not high heat because it will burn and become bitter, neither too low because it will not release the necessary sugar it needs to caramelise. Onion and garlic have lots of sugar and if cooked right they will release those sugars and bring natural sweetness to curry sauces. If you’ve ever cooked a prawn curry that tastes too sour due the the acidity of the tomatoes, you can rectify your mistake easily by adding extra onion and garlic and caramelising them well, balancing the acidity of the tomatoes with the sweetness of these two bulbs. Once the onions and garlic are on the heat and browning, tomatoes are added before everything is blended together with a few cleaned prawns to make a thick, meaty base for the rest of the naked shellfish to cook in.
Many people assume that curry must stinging hot and pungent in order to be considered authentic. How many people pay more attention to the chilli powder/masala and not the garam masala. Chilli powder is important yes, but to add heat and stop. It is the garam masala that plays the most vital role in adding perfume, fragrance and aromatic qualities, distinctive of a good curry and if you neglect to give it the respect it deserves, you will not reap the full benefit of what this spice blend can do. If you don’t have the curiosity or the will to want to try to make it yourself, it’s fine as long as you are buying it from a reputable spice merchant who you know will give you the best. Try to stay away from using a blend that is sold in supermarkets but rather a place that specialises in spices so that you can rest assured you are getting quality. If you want to make the garam masala at home, you can find the recipe on my Seafood Biriyani post. During the course of the lesson with the Italian ladies, I demonstrated how to make it and one of the ladies, Alice, attempted it at home and this is the picture below that she sent to me, proving that making garam masala is not a difficult task at all, anybody can do it.
With regards to the rice accompaniment, many of us know that lemon and fish work well together, but very rarely do we get the opportunity to use lemon in a curry. The juice maybe, but the juice does not contain the distinct flavour of lemon because that special flavour is derived from the zest. The comforting truth is that our Indian ancestors knew this and steered us in the right direction, that is why lemon pickle is so popular amongst Indians who more often than not, will keep a jar to serve as a condiment with various curries. As delicious and clever as Indian pickles are, there are certain curries that don’t need the extra spiciness or tang from a pickle, or the added bitterness from lemon pickle for example, it can considerably alter the flavour of a dish which is not always necessary. What I have created is a very simple Lemon Preserve (check Maestros Need to Know) with no added spices or chillies, only salt to preserve colour and taste. Over months of preservation, the lemons become soft and wonderfully fragrant, I then use only the thinnest layer of the rind, discarding everything else, to flavour dishes like the Lemon Saffron Rice. The result is sweet prawn meat, against a spicy curry sauce with the hint of lemon from the rice, a dish that once you master, will be difficult to forget.
FOR THE PRAWN CURRY
- 800g large prawns cleaned & deveined, tails on – shells reserved
- 3tbs sunflower oil
- 2 large onions
- 6 medium tomatoes
- 6 large garlic pods
- curry leaves
- 1tbs ginger paste
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tbs garam masala
- 2 tbs curry powder
- 1 tbs fish sauce
- freshly chopped coriander
- Heat 1 tbs of oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add all the shells and let fry with 1 tsp of salt. When the shells are pink, dry and smoking add a cup and a half of water and let simmer with lid on for 20 minutes. Drain through a sieve and reserve half a cup for the curry and freeze the remaining liquid.
- Heat 1 tbs of oil in a large saucepan on medium heat.
- Roughly chop onions (chunky) and add to saucepan with curry leaves and cleaned garlic pods. Cover with lid.
- Meanwhile roughly chop tomatoes. (Chunky) and add it to the onions and garlic.
- Cook for 12-15 minutes on medium heat. Using a spatula move the ingredients around from time to time to ensure that all sides are cooking evenly without burning. At the end of cooking time the onions and garlic should be caramelised but not burned.
- Empty the contents of the saucepan into a blender.
- Add five cleaned prawns (tails removed) and blend together to make a purée.
- Add the last tbs of oil to a clean saucepan and fry curry powder, garam masala and mustard seeds for 3 minutes or until bubbly.
- Add purée and remaining tsp of salt, keeping the flame on a low heat.
- Add ginger paste.
- Clean out the blender with a splash of water and pour into the curry sauce.
- Add the liquid from the shells. Stir to combine.
- Cover with lid and allow to cook for 10 minutes.
- Turn up the heat to medium – high and add prawns.
- Add the fish sauce, cover with lid and cook prawns for 3-4 minutes before turning them over gently to cook for another 3-4 minutes.
- Curry must be reduced to a thick saucy gravy. If this is happening too quickly turn the heat down.
- Once the prawns have been cooked for the required time turn off heat. Clean the sides with a spatula, stir to check consistency.
- Garnish with freshly chopped coriander.
- Wait a couple of hours before serving so that the flavours can intensify.
FOR THE LEMON & SAFFRON RICE
- 2 cups long grain rice
- 750 ml water
- 1 tbs kosher salt
- 1 g saffron powder
- 20g lemon rind of preserved lemons/lemon confit. Or freshly grated lemon zest of two lemons
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- salt to taste
- coriander to garnish
- Bring water and salt to the boil on medium heat.
- Add rice to boiling water and boil for twenty mins until soft but not thoroughly cooked.
- Drain rice into colander and rinse with cold water to stop cooking.
- If using lemon confit, finely chop only the rind of 2 lemon quarters.
- In a separate but large pot heat olive oil and add lemon confit or grated zest and mustard seeds and fry gently.
- Add salt to taste according to your preference.
- Cook for 3-4 minutes before adding the rice.
- Mix the rice through so all the grains are coated with the oil.
- Mix saffron powder with 3 tbs of water and sprinkle over the rice.
- Using a spatula stir the rice so that it infuses with the saffron water , use a folding motion so that the grains of rice do not break unnecessarily and retain their firm texture.
- Switch off the heat, garnish with coriander and serve hot.
Maestros Need to Know *When it comes to cooking with prawns the freshest are always the tastiest but of course there are times when we are inclined to use frozen prawns. I find that using frozen prawns that have their heads and shells still on are the closest alternative to using fresh. So do not feel tempted to buy frozen prawns that are already shelled and deveined. Unfortunately the size of these prawns can be deceptive, in reality they are full of ice and once you let them thaw out you will be left with very little prawn meat. Another reason not to buy them is the fact it's nearly impossible to get all the water out before cooking, so what will most likely happen is that once the prawns hit the heat they will start to lose lots and lots of water and this will affect the consistency of your curry. By taking that extra time to reduce your gravy the prawns will start to over cook resulting in a rubbery texture rather than the soft succulence that you must aim for. Prawns need very little time to be cooked to perfection so never ever over cook them. *A very simple and easy way to devein and shell prawns to stop you from getting ripped off again is as follows. First break off the head to reveal the gut. But be careful because the head has a very sharp and pointy tip that must be considered otherwise you can poke yourself. You will recognise the gut as a thin and black string protruding from the centre of the flesh. Using your fingertips pull the gut out gently so that it comes off cleanly without breaking inside the flesh. You may then gently remove the shell covering the body by pulling from the underside of the prawn. Do this gently without breaking the flesh. Rinse under cold running water. The prawn is now ready to be cooked without being sliced open to remove the gut. *You would have noticed that in the pureè I added fresh prawn meat. I did this to intensify the flavour of the curry. If you wish to use an alternative of store bought shrimp paste I would suggest that you use 2 teaspoons for this recipe. But be mindful because shrimp paste has lots of salt so watch the salt content as you cook this dish. *Lemon preserve or confit is a versatile ingredient that I love using in insurmountable ways and if you want to make it, here is how its done. Wash and quarter a kilo of ripe lemons. When quartering the lemons do not cut it all the way through. It should open like a flower. Start filling the inside of the lemons with fine sea salt. Add fine sea salt to the bottom of a sterilised mason jar and add in the salted lemons. Cover the top with more salt and seal tightly. Leave to rest for 3 months before use. When you need to use them, use only the rind and discard the rest.