Flying Air Singapore to Indonesia and a visit with our daughter. Twenty-three excruciatingly long hours of travel. A messenger bag filled with food alternatives: jerk salmon, smoked trout, dried fruit, assorted nuts, chocolate bars* — we’re convinced we’ll require sustenance to carry us through our journey! The first meal is served: ‘mystery chow’. The sound of rustling tinfoil resinates through the cabin, the chatter evaporates and the clatter of cutlery ensues. The aroma engulfs us as I peel back the silver cover to allow a charge of steam to escape. Cauliflower, Peas and Chickpeas in a Curry Sauce. The most delicious, fresh and flavorful meal we’ve ever eaten inflight. A truly memorable airplane meal — and no, it wasn’t first class!!
With little Indian food experience, I’m hardly an expert. A shared dinner with friends in Toronto long ago — I recall the conversation, the nan bread and how horribly hot the restaurant was, that’s about it. A chance opportunity several years later to dine at the acclaimed Viji’s Restaurant while in Vancouver with my friend Linda and her daughter — an outstanding meal, every bite an explosion of flavor, a culinary surprise. I left the restaurant, Viji’s Cookbook and Spices in hand, thinking I was going to cook my way to curry nirvana …
… never happened.
Two years ago while in a rural village in Wales, my son-in-law and his mother suggested a dinner of Indian food. A bit surprised — we’re in the middle of the Welsh country-side after all — we agreed, not really sure what we were in for.
Unbeknownst to us, Indian food in Britian is like Thai food in North America: there is a great restaurant in every town, the backroads of Wales not withstanding!
After consuming a wonderful meal, we decide to educate ourselves and seriously hunt out fine Indian food once back home. We had misses but, resigned to find good Indian food, we persevered! Through experimentation (not always positive — ever suffer the ramifications of bad Indian food?!!), word-of-mouth and research, we found a wonderful ‘neighborhood’ restaurant serving up just what we were hoping for.
As in Great Britian, sometimes you find the unexpected in the darnedest of places!
TILAPIA IN TOMATO-COCONUT CURRY
Coconut Curry Adapted from Viji’s, Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine, by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala
1/3 cup Olive oil, scant, plus 2 tsp for cooking tilapia filets
20-25 Curry Leaves, left whole — If you’re unable to find fresh, try to locate frozen in an Indian or Asian market. There are no exact substitutes for Curry leaves, however you can use fresh basil leaves plus a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, or kaffir lime leaves, or 3-4 dried bay leaves. The taste of the finished dish will be slightly altered, but it will still be delicious.
2+ tbsp chopped Garlic, approx 5-6 cloves
1-1½ cups coarsely chopped Sweet Onion, 1 large onion
1 can diced San Marzano Tomatoes, (28oz/1lb.12oz/794 gm) drained, reserve liquid
1 tbsp ground Cumin
1 tbsp ground Coriander
2 tsp Kosher Salt, plus extra for sprinkling on Tilapia
¼ tsp Cayenne (if you like more heat, add an additional ¼ tsp)
6 whole Cloves
2 cups Water
1 can Coconut Milk, unsweetened (13.5oz/403 gm)
3 pounds Tilapia Filet, each filet separated lengthwise into 2 pieces
Sweet Madras Curry Powder
¼ cup chopped Parsley, for garnish
In a wide-bottom, medium sized pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add curry leaves for 1 minute — careful, they’ll splatter!
Add garlic, sauté for 1 minute, stirring often. You want the garlic to become a light gold, watch that it doesn’t start to burn.
Add chopped onion and cook 8-10 minutes, until translucent and browning.
Stir in tomatoes, cumin, coriander, salt, cayenne and cloves.
Cook 8 minutes, until tomatoes just begin to break down.
Add water, reserved tomato liquid and coconut milk. Stir to blend.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover pot and cook at a low simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Heat 1 tsp olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. After 1 minute add tilapia. Cook 3 minutes on first side then gently flip and cook another 2-3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets.
Remove fish from pan — it’s done when it’s opaque. Remember, fish continues to cook even after being removed from the heat (pan or oven). Repeat until all the fish is cooked, adding more oil to the pan as needed.
Place fish in a serving dish.
Remove the cloves and the curry leaves from the curry. Taste and add more fresh pepper and kosher salt if needed.
Spoon the tomato-coconut curry over the fish. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve.
*By the way, that survival bag of food we shlepped to Indonesia? Never touched!!