I’ve never been crazy about Indian fish kababs; they usually seem dried out, and the Indian spicing usually seems to overwhelm the subtle flavors of the fish. That all changed when I got to Hyderabad—where a plate of moist, grilled fish chunks and perfectly chosen Indian spices did a remarkable pas de deux. I was hoping Prasad could help me re-create this miracle—the right fish, the right spices, the right proportions, the right techniques—and I am thrilled with what we have wrought. I like serving this dish early in the party, because subtlety is supreme here.
Makes four decent-sized tasting portions
1 lb. skinless, boneless halibut
½ cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Green Chili Paste
1 teaspoon garlic paste
1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons Roasted Split Pea Powder
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh cilantro leaves
1 dried red chile, soaked for 5 minutes in very hot water and coarsely chopped
⅛ teaspoon turmeric
⅛ teaspoon amchur (mango) powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
7 or 8 fresh curry leaves, cut into chiffonade
1. Cut the halibut into chunks about 3″ long, 2″ wide, and 1″ thick. Hand rub with salt, and set aside.
2. In a blender, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, Green Chili Paste, garlic paste, onion, Roasted Split Pea Powder, mint leaves, cilantro leaves, dried red chile, turmeric, amchur powder, and 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil. Blend to a smooth paste.
3. Combine marinade with fish chunks, stirring well. Place in freezer for 10 minutes.
4. When ready to cook, oil your grate with a brush, then place grate over medium-hot fire for 2 minutes. Place the fish chunks on the grate, lifting them after 30 seconds or so with a thin-edge steel spatula. Continue cooking chunks on the same side for another 2-3 minutes, until they’ve become golden. Baste tops with some of the remaining oil, and turn chunks over. Grill for another 2-3 minutes, basting, until fish is just cooked through. Remove carefully with steel spatula and place on platter. Spoon left-over marinade on the cooked fish (a tablespoon or so per piece), and top with chiffonade of curry leaves. Serve immediately.
Roasted Split Pea Powder
Heat a heavy, medium-large sauté pan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add a cup of soft, yellow split peas (they are called “dhalia”), spreading them out in the pan in a single layer. Shake over the fire every 30 seconds or so, to make sure the peas don’t burn. After 3-4 minutes, they will become slightly golden-brown on the outside, and an earthy aroma will rise. Do not cook them any longer, lest they burn. Remove them immediately, and spread them out in a single layer on a plate. After they’ve cooled for a few minutes, grind them in a coffee grinder until you reach the consistency of granulated sugar. Store in an air-tight container.
Tasting Note: I have no explanation for the crazy flavor these peas pick up—but, after roasting and grinding, they smell almost meaty, even organ-y. Exotic and delicious. Great for adding flavor and texture to subtle dishes.
In preparing Hyderabadi grill food, pastes are used for three reasons: 1) to flavor the food; 2) to tenderize the food; 3) to improve the mouthfeel of the food.
Garlic and ginger paste, which play the former role, are practically ubiquitous in Indian cooking; happily, excellent pre-made garlic and ginger pastes in jars are available, so you don’t have to spend tedious time peeling garlic and ginger. But one easy flavoring paste is vastly better when prepared at home—green chili paste, made from fresh green chilis that are of any heat level you desire.
For tenderizers, Indian cooks uses a number of pastes made from fruits to improve the texture of their proteins. Prasad is especially partial to homemade pastes made from pineapple and green papaya. Figs and pomegranates are also sometimes used in India as tenderizing fruit pastes—and, of course, yogurt, though not a “paste,” is a major tenderizing agent.
As for the latter category—”improved mouthfeel”—Prasad also likes to make a paste from roasted cashews. which adds a subtle taste and lovely richness to the foods which marinate in it.
Green Chili Paste
Select a pound of very fresh green chilis; it might be a good idea to taste one before buying them, to make sure the level of heat suits you. Keep in mind that the ultimate paste will include the seeds and ribs, so the paste is probably going to be even hotter than your nibble! (I used some very fresh, very lively serranos for my paste.) Cut off the stems and wash the chilis in cold water. Cut chilis in coarse chunks, then place them in the work bowl of a food processor. Blend to a paste, adding 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil as you go. Store in refrigerator in air-tight container; it should remain fresh for at least two weeks.
Tasting Note: I was not prepared for either the lovely, bright green color of this paste, the intense freshness of the flavor—or the way I was tempted to use scoops of it in everything as I was preparing my Indian grill food! This will become a staple at my house.
Photos: Rajesh Pamnani/Flickr Creative Commons & BigStock