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Sri Lankan Fish “Stew”

On bleak and chilly days, before the Spring, and before the Spring-runs of salmon – which is generally when we’re craving it most we buy a frozen salmon fillet and this is one of our favorite ways to prepare it.  (The salmon remains tender, succulent, moist – if you hadn’t bought it yourself, you wouldn’t know it was frozen.) This dish is savory, sour-sweet (thanks to the tamarind),  warmly and mildly spicy, and coconut-milk-creamy…and, as a bonus, it’s an incredibly healthy meal.

A note on the SPICES:  (I like to use whole seeds when I can, and dry-roasting them brings out their “sweetness” and adds another dimension of flavor to a dish. Besides that, spices you buy already-ground have started to lose some of their potency by the time they make it to your spice cupboard. But if you don’t want to make the purchase and you already have the ground spices on hand, by all means, simply cut in half the quantity of seeds specified below as your guide.)

Sri Lankan Fish Stew

(this should serve at least 4)

  • 2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon whole peppercorns
  • ¼ teaspoon fennel seed
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • scant 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3 Italian plum tomatoes chopped (+ 1 more for garnish, or cherry tomatoes, chopped)
  • 1 can unsweetened coconut milk (13½ ounce or 420 ml)
  • 1 Tablespoon tamarind paste, dissolved in 3 Tbl. warm water
  • 1¾ teaspoon teaspoon sugar
  • salt (to taste)
  • 2 pounds (1 kg) salmon (halibut, or sea bass fillets)
  • small bunch cilantro leaves, torn – as garnish
  • Cooked rice, to ladle the stew over. (Basmati is wonderful with this.)

Drop the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds, along with the peppercorns, into a small skillet, using no oil. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds & peppercorns until seeds have begun to release their aroma and have turned a toasty brown, stirring or shaking the pan often. Remove the skillet from the heat and allow to cool for just a minute then grind finely with mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder.

Measure out the other spices and have them ready to add all at once.

Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise – squeeze and shake over sink to release most of their seeds. Then chop.

In a large skillet with high sides or a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the coconut oil.  Add the chopped onion and minced garlic and sauté until the onions are tender and nearly translucent (about 4 or 5 minutes.) Add all the spices and cook for about 30 seconds longer, stirring continually, coating the onion and garlic with the spices. Add the tomatoes and sauté until they’ve started to release their liquids (about 1 minute.)  Stir in the coconut milk, the dissolved tamarind paste, sugar and ¾ teaspoon salt.

Lower the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer, and cook partially covered for about 25 minutes.

Put rice on to cook.

Cut the fish into serving size portions and add  atop the sauce in the pot. Spoon a bit of sauce over each, then cook at a gentle simmer until fish is tender but still moist – probably no more than 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish.

Serve in wide bowls, over rice, garnished with chopped fresh tomatoes and torn cilantro leaves.

There's lots more sauce - ladle it on if you like!

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for a printed version of this recipe, click here.

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63 Comments Post a comment
  1. This sounds marvelous; it’ll be tomorrow night’s dinner. Thanks for another wonderful recipe, Spree.

    Ronnie

    February 26, 2012
    • Thank you Ronnie! Let me know, ok? 🙂

      February 26, 2012
  2. Darlyn #

    This dish looks scrumptious

    February 26, 2012
    • I think you and that man of yours would love it Darlyn.

      February 26, 2012
  3. Looks so delicious!
    Now I understand what you told me about the textures!

    February 26, 2012
    • Ahh! Thank you Pablo!!

      February 26, 2012
  4. That looks really delicious and filling.

    February 26, 2012
    • It’s pretty darn satisfying Dienna! 🙂 Thanks for leaving a comment!

      February 26, 2012
  5. Spreesgratefulguineapig #

    This a good one, very hearty and warming on a cold, rainy/snowy blustery day. Spree love the shot of the textured mortar and pestal!

    February 26, 2012
    • Why, thank you Grateful!

      February 26, 2012
  6. That looks so good! I baked fish in a curry paste tonight but I sure wouldn’t be sorry to have more sauce–I will try this next time!

    February 26, 2012
    • Don’t you love fish curries? And the sauce over rice, mmmm so good!

      February 26, 2012
  7. I’m at a loss for words, hard to believe! That just looks so amazing.

    February 26, 2012
    • Greg, funny (& near-impossible) contemplating YOU without words! Always such a wit!

      February 26, 2012
  8. Gorgeous photos! I will try making this in my tagine.

    February 26, 2012
    • Thanks for the kind compliment! It should turn out wonderfully in your tagine!

      February 26, 2012
  9. Mari Anna #

    What a surprise to find a Sri Lankan recipe on your site.
    When I lived there as a young child I was always wondering how our cook was making everything so tasty.
    And now here it is!

    February 26, 2012
    • What an experience, MariAnna, spending years of childhood in Sri Lanka! And I can just imagine with what amazement you must have looked on the plates put before you by the cook! I imagine too that in your mind you can still conjure up the sights and smells coming from that kitchen, and from the street vendors’ carts and little restaurants! Some day you’ll need to tell me more!!

      February 26, 2012
      • Mari Anna #

        There was one thing cook made in particular that was out of this world. It was a curried rice with currants. Someday we’ll find out!

        February 26, 2012
  10. Hi there, I just love Sri Lankan food, so pungent and spicy with the flavours of tamarind and chillies. YUM ! I also like the way you adapted this to have it with Salmon, lovely!

    February 27, 2012
    • Oh thanks so much, Claire! Salmon so seems to suit these flavors.

      February 27, 2012
  11. Val #

    Can’t wait to tell the family ”We’re having Sri Lankan tonight!” Thanks for this lovely recipe!

    February 27, 2012
    • Val #

      That was delicious spree! I used worcestershire sauce in place of the tamarind paste and left out the cloves because I had none. Do you think prawns would work well alongside the salmon!

      February 27, 2012
      • Nice workin’-with-what-you’ve-got, Val! (You could try adding lime next time too if you haven’t any tamarind.) And “yes!” on the prawns ( so long as they don’t get overcooked.) So pleased to hear you liked it! 🙂 Thanks for letting me know!

        February 27, 2012
  12. Beautifully illustrated recipe – unfortunately I have vivid memories of being ill for a week in Goa after a fish curry, which has put me off Goa more than your delicious recipe.

    February 27, 2012
    • Memories like those remain vivid for an AWFULLY long time, don’t they Roger?

      February 27, 2012
  13. This dish looks so tantalizing, Spree! It’s definitely outside my normal realm of dining. I don’t recall ever enjoying any Sri Lankan cuisine before. I can’t wait to try both! I need to do some Yelp searching!

    February 27, 2012
    • John, I’ll make a prediction: you’ll be smitten! And I hope you’ll let me know when you are!

      February 27, 2012
  14. That looks so beautiful. I need to shake things up a bit over here and next time Fish Man has something suitable I would love to give this a go!

    February 27, 2012
    • This would definitely qualify as “shaking things up a bit” and I think you’d really really like it, Tanya!

      February 27, 2012
  15. That looks so wonderful, Spree! I love the photo of the whole seeds being crushed. I do try to use whole seeds in my cooking, but I often can’t be bothered… I know it sounds bad, but… what the hell… :D. I still make a DAMN good curry.

    February 27, 2012
    • Thank you Nick – happy to hear you like that photo. I have in mind a photo gallery for my kitchen in which the selections rotate depending on time of year (and of course spree’s many whims.) This one will likely make the rotation. Curries are awfully popular in the UK aren’t they? What’s your specific specialty? Have you posted it and I’ve missed it? I love them too.

      February 27, 2012
  16. Hi Antoinette! (beautiful name, by the way)
    This dish looks so heartwarming. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    February 27, 2012
    • Heartwarming…I think that may be the perfect one-word description! Thank you! 🙂

      February 27, 2012
  17. this looks delectable and delicious, I do believe I can even smell the aromas!

    February 27, 2012
  18. One winter day, I showed up at Spree’s door. When I walked in, the house was filled with the fragrance of this dish. I exclaimed in cozy delight, and my stomach rumbled in reaction (It’s rumbling now, just remembering). Slow-cooked is the secret, she told me. Each savory bite was as profoundly tasty as the look and smell of the dish.

    I have made Sri Lankan Fish Stew countless times since Spree first served me. It’s a fool-proof dish for company, it’s an easy meal when you don’t have much time, and it’s just the best damn frozen salmon dish I’ve tasted. If you really want to feel the whole tastebud punch, prepare the spices just as she suggests, with mortar and pestle. You will squirm! If you’re in a hurry, use your tasteless ground up ones. You’ll still love it. Once when I ran out, I substituted lime for the tamarind paste. (Shhhhhh.)

    February 27, 2012
    • What?!? You substituted LIME? Of course you did, it’s a brilliant substitution – not the “same” but definitely good in a pinch (and even out of one.) Thank you so much for your lovely sweet words, sweet Caro-line! xo

      February 28, 2012
  19. Looks delicious! Definitely trying it sometime

    February 27, 2012
  20. Yuuuuuuuuuum this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been in the mood for. I can see it going on this week’s menu for sure.

    February 27, 2012
    • Rock salt, it’s absolutely the same thing I crave this time of year. Lots of flavor, warmth, spiciness, and a bit of richness. It is so yummmm.

      February 28, 2012
  21. Oh goodness. This looks so good. My tummy’s rumbling, too, Carolyn.

    February 27, 2012
  22. Ali #

    This is oh so good!! 🙂
    Let’s get this on the menu this week, eh?!

    February 27, 2012
  23. m&m #

    So bright and beautiful! I’m craving spices tonight….

    February 27, 2012
    • I do so get that way too, where nothing but spices will satisfy! 🙂

      February 28, 2012
  24. Love the combination of the spices mixed with coconut milk. Beautiful images too!

    February 27, 2012
  25. Love the recipe! I am so bookmarking.

    February 27, 2012
  26. thank you for this recipe. since traveling through Sri Lanka I’m constantly on the lookout for recipes and restaurants that can recreate that wonderful cuisine…this looks to be very close and I can’t wait to try it.

    February 28, 2012
    • Never having been to Sri Lanka I can’t speak firsthand. But I hope if you try it you’ll let me know your impressions. I can vouch though for how very warm, tasty and satisfying it is!

      February 28, 2012
  27. ps…i made it last night! scrounged for every frozen fish piece in my freezer yesterday. served it up for 5, and there’s leftovers for 2! no one spoke for 2 full minutes. that’s unheard of with this group. lost in a comfort-food reverie, we were. then, all at once, the moaning, ahhhing and exclaiming, ‘how delicious!’ began.

    February 28, 2012
  28. Ok, I am now officially green with envy, who is this “carolyn” and why does she get to have dinner with spree and the rest of us don’t?? Well, for the record, I, too, would love to walk through spree’s door and savour this amazing dish with her… Ahh, well, I will have to make do and prepare this on my own, but I’ll be thinking of you, spree, with every bite. This is just the kind of recipe that makes me want to get into the kitchen and whip out all of those spices… I love the combination of flavors here, spree!! xoxo Smidge

    February 28, 2012
  29. So glad I came across your blog. What lovely photos and excellent recipes. My mouth is watering!

    February 29, 2012
    • I am so happy you came by and liked what you saw! Thank you for letting me know!! 🙂

      February 29, 2012
  30. This looks amazing!! Love coconut milk and all the spices. Absolutely divine! And your mortar and pestle is super cute!

    February 29, 2012
    • Thank you Stephanie, for stopping by and leaving such nice words! (and, finally! somebody noticed how super cute my mortar and pestle are! 😉 )

      February 29, 2012
  31. I love anything that starts with ‘Sri Lankan…’ love all the spices and flavours that come out of sri lankan style cooking- yum!
    Looks gorgeous Spree.

    March 3, 2012
  32. I just made this and it was To.Die.For. I only used 12 ounces of halibut so I cut the coconut milk in half. I kept the spice amounts the same because I was using the “aged” ground spices from my cupboard. Also had to use 1/2 a lime for the tamarind. I cooked the whole thing in my tagine. Sooo good, worthy of dinner guests!

    March 9, 2012
    • “Greensquash” (I’m so sorry…I feel funny calling you that! 😉 ) Thanks SO much for your comments! It’s always so gratifying to hear how someone utilized the recipe, made it work for them and loved what they served up. You made me smile – thanks so much!

      March 9, 2012
  33. Curries are so fabulous–I adore the variety of spices and intensities and balances possible with the multitude of ingredients in any masala, and it’s simply comfort food at almost any time of day, week or year! True: toasting spices helps freshen up their volatile oils (even with old, ground ones a little bit). Your mortar and pestle are so pretty it’d be worth going out and getting new whole spices just for the excuse to use them! I’m afraid my mortar and pestle are boring white ceramic ones and anyway when I make curry masala it’s in such big batches I can’t easily even use that wimpy little m&p set, so I have a dedicated small electric coffee grinder for *that* particular spice grinding! All worth it for a delicious curry. Mmmmmmmmm. Good. 🙂
    xoxo
    Kathryn

    March 11, 2012
  34. carolyn #

    I’m making this, yet again Thursday evening for a birthday dinner party! Can’t wait! I may try it in my Romertopff.

    October 31, 2012
  35. Anna #

    This is such a wonderful recipe. It’s my go to pantry meal. I use frozen salmon and canned diced tomatoes so that I can make it any time. Thanks for the GREAT meal.

    December 15, 2012
    • Anna, this is one of our favorites! So glad to know you like it too, and I love that you let me know! That always makes my day! 🙂

      December 18, 2012

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