The Discovery of India

“What’s Sri Lankan food like? Is it like Indian food?”

I never know how to answer this question. What is Indian food like anyway? There’s the food of South India, redolent of hot chilli and curry leaves. The food of the north uses more yogurt and less coconut milk. The Parsis, the Bengalis, the Gujeratis all have their specialities. So how similar is it to Sri Lankan food? The food of Kerala, based on rice flour and coconut has much more in common with the food of Sri Lanka than the food of Rajastan, where wheat is the staple. So in that sense, there is Indian food that’s a lot like Sri Lankan food. But is there even a such thing as Indian food? And what is Sri Lankan food anyway? Do you mean the food of the coast? The food of the north? The food of central highlands?

I really don’t know what Indian food is, and I certainly don’t pretend to be any expert on the regional cooking of India. Like most people, I’ve learned everything I know about “Indian” food from cookbooks, the Internet, and a few patient friends. This dinner, thrown together in honor of some fabulous halibut I got in Oregon, features what is a Bengali fish curry, according to Cyrus Todiwala. I cooked up a kidney bean curry to use some kidney beans we had boiled the previous week, and some cabbage, the way my mom would have made it (had we had curry leaves, dried chilli and Maldive fish–call it a minimalist Sri Lankan cabbage). Call it a pan-Indian supper, call it whatever you want, it was delicious.

Bengali Fish Curry

1 pound firm fleshed fish (I used halibut here. We had fillets, but you can use steaks as well)
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic
1/2 inch piece of ginger
1 small green chile
1/2 teaspoon dried red chilli
2 tbsp. ghee (you can also use a neutral flavored oil such as peanut or canola)
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 tsp. garam masala
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro

Cut fish into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with turmeric and salt and set aside while you chop the onion. Pound garlic, ginger and green chilli together. Heat ghee in saucepan. Fry fish two minutes on one side and one minute on the other. Remove from pan. Fry onion briefly, add garlic-ginger paste. When onion is soft, add yogurt and cook until thick. (Warning: This is not the prettiest dish; the yogurt will curdle. Accept and move on. It tastes good.) Taste and adjust for salt.

Add fish to sauce and stir to coat. Bring sauce to simmer and cook one minute. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let sit for ten minutes. Garnish with cilantro.

Kidney Bean Curry

2 cups cooked kidney beans
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 in. ginger
1 green chilli
1 tbsp. ghee or neutral flavored oil
2 medium tomatoes, or use canned
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp salt (use less if using canned kidney beans)
chopped coriander for garnish

Pound garlic, ginger, and chilli to paste. Heat ghee in saucepan. Add onion and cook until soft. Add ginger-garlic paste. Cook one minute more, then add tomatoes. Add dried spices and cook until tomato has thickened and flavors are beginning to meld. Add kidney beans and cook five minutes more. Taste and adjust for salt. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve.

Source: Mamta’s Kitchen, Cyrus Todiwala’s Cafe Spice Namaste



Filed under gluten-free, South Asian

5 responses to “The Discovery of India

  1. I absolutely LOVE a good fish curry. I never thought I would until I met my British husband (I’m American) and now I’m crazy for all types of Indian food. Interestingly, I usually take a break from eating Indian over the hot summer b/c w/ the spice and heaviness (I always over-indulge w/ it!), I feel like a heffer – and worse if it’s humid outside. In India, they live in the heat… I guess it just proves I’m not Indian. Great recipe.

    amy @ we are never full

  2. I’m so happy to have stumbled upon your blog! I lived in Sri Lanka for three years (via the Peace Corps). I lived in Kandy for the first three months, then moved to Marawila for about 6; the remainder of my stay was spent in Rekawa, which is east of Tangalle. I miss the food dearly. I make parippu, pol saembol, and rotis fairly often, but there are so many things I can’t get here (NE U.S.) that I could get there. Lately I’ve been having a craving for jakfruit, cashew curry, and pumpkin curry. The family I lived with were fantastic cooks.

    I really miss the food, the people, and the island itself.


    I’ll check back in later when I have more time to read.

  3. Amy, Actually, in South Asia, spicy food is supposed to help in the heat, as it induces sweating, thus cooling you off. The further north you go in India, the less spicy the food. These curries aren’t that spicy at all. As I was trying to point out in my post, there is a lot of variation in regional cuisine, so it doesn’t really make sense to speak of “Indian” curries as being spicy.

    Anne, Welcome! Cashew and pumpkins should be readily available here. Jackfruit only in its canned incarnation, which is probably gross….

  4. This looks delicious, loaded with flavor, and soo good it pops right out of the page! yummy! 🙂

  5. It definitely sounds delicious and you did a great job putting it together. I love the fish you used, I can imagine it took on the flavors of the rest of the dish perfectly :). We would like to feature your recipe on our blog and possibly our kitchen digital recipe reader. Please email me at if you’re interested. Have a lovely evening :).

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