No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.

To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala

1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.

Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:

Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map of Ingredients Source
Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map

The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.

From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.

Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.

All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.

To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.

Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).


14 thoughts on “No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

  1. love this dish! your post is so timely; I am in Iraq and already bought some spices to take back with me to Lebanon; I noted that there is no zaatar here, a typically lebanese spice (in fact one of only two typical spices from lebanon).

    • Hi Joumana:

      Thanks for visiting . . . How exciting to go to Iraq! You should find a number of commonalities with Lebanese cooking, or dishes that are similar from springing from a common ancestor, but that have developed differently over time. . . Can’t wait to hear more about the trip! I noticed your post on grape stick candy the other day and noted that the Georgians have something very similar called Churchkela which is a candied must often (usually) with walnuts.

  2. Always a pleasure to read your adventures, perspectives and recipes in the cause against food racism. Great news about the books signing – congratulations!

  3. I bet you wowed them at the Smithsonian. I love the recipe and hear you about the worldliness of our cuisines. I think one of the things that has always shocked me is how far spices went in the ancient world considering transportation at the time… that and the speed with which chilies spread all over the world (followed by potatoes and tomatoes). How boring food would have been without trade!

    • Hi Deana: Glad you liked the post. Goods moved a lot quicker in times past than we think. Not in the matter of days and hours as they do today, but in days and weeks depending on the sourcing. The issue that many forget is that there were many, many middlemen traders so goods were usually closer than we think. For instance Chinese and Indian goods available though Levantine traders, instead of from the original sources.

  4. What a fascinating lesson! Onions and garlic from central Asia – never knew that before reading your post . . . actually that map printed is a priceless contribution to anyone who loves to eat 🙂 ! As far as the actual recipe is concerned – love it: there seem to be so many ingredients at first look, but the second glance down shows one already has most in one’s pantry! Now; just to get some prawns . . . and try . . . and then figure out how many borders one has crossed 🙂 ! Hope to post on . . . .

    • Hi Eha:

      Thanks for the comments and the visit. Let me know if you try and like the recipe. For me, its better even than, “taste with your eyes,” suggests!

  5. Congratulations on the book, wonderful! Your article presented a thought provoking discussion for all of us. I loved the way you gave a dish to think about and then deconstructed all of the elements and traced them to their original source. Thank you Laura, a great read.

    • Hi Angela:

      Welcome to the site! I’m glad you liked the post and appreciated it for the very mix for ideas and delicious recipes that is Silk Road Gourmet. Happy to have stimulated interesting discussion for you and yours. You should try the recipe – it is a keeper!

  6. Laura,
    Glad to hear the book signing went well. This is a great post which highlights what a remarkable thing food is. Yesterday I opened a jar of star anise and the smell sensation stopped me in my tracks and I marvelled at how such an exotic thing could find its way to a kitchen in the middle of England.
    Quite incredible really.

    • Hi Miles:

      Thanks for visiting. I love the smell of fresh spices and thinking about the worlds away that they come from. As exotic as they seem now, they are really commonplace to their status in times past when fortunes were built or lost on them, people were enslaved or died for them, and empires born from them. . .

  7. very Informative,things i didn’t know before.. from where the spices actually originated ? There’ s a Chocolate history too ! probably you are familiar with that, once i was watching Geo Graphic; I came to know it was basically used to please kings a long time ago, it was given in the form of chili drinks to them; that’s all i know 🙂 probably you have done some research on that.. do share 🙂 will love to read..


    • Hi Monu:

      Glad to be of service! I just see connections everywhere. It’s fascinating to me to see how similar dishes tell of historical links that are now forgotten . . .Stay tuned for more!

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