A Curry of Fish and Oranges

The Holidays have several brought crates of fruit into the house: apples from our friends at Moonfire Orchard, a large box of Korean Pears and a large box of mixed oranges and tangerines from an Auntie in Massachusetts. With the apples, I’m working on an ancient Roman recipe for Pork and Apples from Apicius which is sort of like a “twice-cooked pork” of antiquity. I’ve got a tagine in mind for the Korean Pears (as well as some Korean recipes), and with the mandarin oranges in the citrus box, I have been developing a delicious Bhutanese dish of Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry that I simply have to share with you.

Now, fish with fruit frightens some people, but many cultures have great recipes and combinations for these seemingly disparate ingredients. For example, the Iranians and Azeris have a fish with sour cherries that is nothing short of amazing, and the South Asians have some lovely fish and mango dishes. So there are precedents. Fish with orange recipes abound in the Himalayas and SE Asia, but my favorite so far is the Bhutanese recipe which has just the right balance of sweet, spicy, sour and hot for me.

Fish and Orange Curry
Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry

Bhutan is a paradise for fishermen with the rivers and streams abundant with fish – especially trout – and shellfish. The fishing is so good that several tour companies run specialty tours for fly-fishermen who want to try out their skills on some of the fish in these pristine waters. People who are good fishers or who can afford to, also eat a lot of fish as well – especially so for a high-altitude, land-locked country such as Bhutan.

But what to do with all that fish? Below is one recipe for Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry that I recommend. It is authentic Bhutanese, so it is spicy. If you have a heat-sensitive palate, you may reduce the number of chili peppers to suit your taste. In Bhutan, the fish would be fresh water, but I used 2 pounds of Norwegian mackerel I had on hand and it was delicious. I served it over a Red Rice Pilaf and together they made a great meal.

Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry

2 pounds of fish, gutted and heads removed
4 tablespoons sweet butter
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, peeled, thinly sliced and separated into crescents
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and grated or minced (2.5 in. x 1 x 1)
8-9 Finger-hot chili peppers, minced, but with seeds and placenta intact
1 large tomato, cut into a large dice
1/2 cup water or orange juice
1 cup fish stock*
1-2 mandarin oranges, peeled and separated, and seeds removed**
1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
1 teaspoon perilla seeds, lightly roasted and ground
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)

  1. Melt butter in a large saute pan over medium heat and add the onion slices when butter is warm. Stir and separate the onions as they warm and after a few minutes, reduce heat to low, cover and let the onions rest as if you were caramelizing them. Let the onions cook quietly for 15 or 20 minutes and then resume cooking over medium heat by adding garlic and ginger and stirring liberally. Cook for 5-8 minutes, or until the garlic starts to swell. Then add the chili peppers and the tomato, stir and cover again and cook for a 3-5 minutes.
  2. Add the water or the orange juice (this can be done earlier if the contents of the pan are too dry) and stir well. When the water is warmed, add the fish stock stir and cooked until the contents of the pan are warmed. Now add the oranges and cover to cook. After about 3-5 minutes uncover and stir again, pressing down on the orange and tomato segments to let them release their flavors into the sauce. Then add the salt, Szechuan pepper and perilla seeds and stir well.
  3. Chop the fish into serving pieces. I cut mine homestyle, which means having to battle bones at the table, but we don’t mind this. Over the many years we have been eating fish this way, we have become skilled at eating the top layer of fish and just lifting the bones out before tucking in to the top layer. If you use a different cut of fish, you will have to change (reduce) the cooking time to suit the cut.
  4. Using the homestyle cut I just lay the fish pieces into the sauce and ladle the sauce over the fish. When all the slices are in the pan, cover and let cook for 5 minutes or so. Then uncover and spoon some more sauce over the fish and repeat for about 10-12 minutes to ensure the slices are fully cooked. Do not flip or turn the slices unless you are confident that you can do so gently without breaking the slices apart. When done, uncover, remove from the heat and plate as desired. Adding a bit of chopped cilantro as a garnish pretties it up just before bringing it to the table.

* Fish stock is easy to make from stored bones or shells with remainder meat from other meals. If you don’t store shells and bones for stock-making, dissolve some Hon-Dashi Japanese fish stock in a cup of water and use that instead. There is no substitute for fresh stock, but reconstituted stock works in a pinch.

** If you are making the Red Rice Pilaf to serve with the fish, don’t forget to use the zest from one of the oranges.

The flavor of the dish is phenomenal, hot chilis and sweet oranges over a bass-line of tomato and onion with a grace-note of Szechuan pepper makes this dish a keeper in our home. Hopefully, you will think the same thing. (Words and Photo of Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry by Laura Kelley).


14 thoughts on “A Curry of Fish and Oranges

  1. How absolutely fantastic, Laura! I have watched many films on Bhutan, but never thought of it in terms of fish or fishing! Can imagine trout but wonder what kind of shellfish could live that high/? [See about misconceptions 🙂 !]. Love curries and make so many, but have never used oranges or their juice! So this is a real treat to try!! My scotch bonnet chillis are just maturing: hmm, have to be careful tho’ I do love a little bit of heat 🙂 !

    • I hope you give this one a go, Eha. However, be careful with those Scotch Bonnets. They come in at about 100,000 to 350,000 Scovilles and the Finger Hots I recommend register only about 30,000-100,000. So they are very different peppers.

      The Bhutanese do eat Thai peppers under duress, but don’t like them because they are too sharp and too hot per unit volume.

      Let me know how it goes if you do try this recipe!


  2. I have never done orange with fish… love the idea and can’t wait to try it. I love mackerel but wonder what fresh water fish would be good??? Trout and catfish too mild?

    • Hi Deana: I think that Trout might be a great choice – that’s what abounds in Bhutan’s rivers and streams. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Nice and very nice combination and I feel if its finish with Julienne Ginger crispy fried and Caramelized with honey and sprinkle on top. Oooh! Wooh It ll be Lovely.
    Best Regards

  4. Agree that your variation above woud be a sweet adaptation. Bhutanese cisine is full of adaptations and variations – and they are delicious!

  5. This looks and sounds amazing! reminds me of our malay assam fish head curry we make back home, spicy, sour and packed full of flavours. might be interesting to use butter and sichuan peppers to the mix! thanks for sharing the recipe!

    • I can see the commonalities – lemongrass for citrus and lots of chillies. Although in my experience the fish head curry is good and sour given all that tamarind.

      Glad you liked the Bhutanese gem – hope you try it and like it as well!

  6. Substitution in recipe…

    First, I am delighted & tremendously impressed with your knowledge and your generous sharing. In consideration of preparing the orange curry fish stew, I have been unable to find a substitute for perilla seeds, which (as you know) are from the mint family. Would adding mint to the recipe be appropriate? In advance, thank you for your consideration.

    • Hi Rachel:

      Thanks for stopping by! Hope the red rice search is going well. Keep me posted if you make this dish!

  7. Laura,
    This looks very nice. David Thompson has a good recipe for clam curry with pineapple from Thailand but the Szechuan pepper addition in yours intrigues me more.

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