Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #3: Domingos Rodrigues

Arte de Cozhina
Arte de Cozinha

Take a step back in time from the English (Hannah Glasse) and American (Mary Randolph) versions of Indian curry that we have examined and explore a 17th Century Portuguese version of a Goan fish curry. The recipe comes from Arte de Cozinha by Domingos Rodrigues and was first published in Lisbon in 1680.

Rodrigues was a cook for the royal household of Portugal who lived from 1637 to 1719, and Arte de Cozhina was the first important cookbook published in Portuguese and was reprinted many times since its initial publication. My copy is a facsimile of the 1732 edition, but I checked the curry recipe against versions on the internet from 1680 and there is no change between the editions.

The recipe was written a full hundred years before Glasse’s curry and it is indeed a very different dish. For starters, this curry is really just a robust sauce or relish to be spooned over poached fish or meat that sit atop salted rice. It is not fish or meat cooked in lots of sauce until tender that is then eaten with plain or flavored rice. It also calls for a large amount of rice. In short, the proportion of meat, sauce and rice in Rodrigues’ curry are different from many curries today. Certainly this is true for those eaten in the west or in those served in international restaurants. However, “curry” as a sauce for rice with only a bit of meat or vegetable is commonly eaten in modern home meals and also in food market stalls on the subcontinent and in the Indo Pacific.

The original recipe reads:

Caril para qualquer peixe

Afogadas duas cebolas bem picadas em uma quarta de manteiga de vaca, deitem-lhe uns poucos de camaroes, ou amêijoas, com o leite de uma quarta de amêndoas e, cozendo-se tudo até que fique um tanto grosso, tempere-se de adubos. Feito isto, coza-se meio arrátel de arroz em água e sal, ponha-se no prato e, sobre ele, algumas postas de peixe que quiserem, cozidas em água, e deite-se por cima o caril. Deste modo se faz também caril para carne, mas nao leva marisco.

A liberal and functional translation of this is:

Curry for any fish

Sauté two minced onions in one fourth of unsalted cow’s butter. Add a few shrimp or clams along with the milk from one fourth of almonds and cook until the sauce has reduced a bit. Season with spices. Cook a half pound of rice in salted water. When the rice is done put it on a plate. On top of the rice place some poached fish and spoon or pour the sauce over the fish and rice. Works well with meat, but not for seafood.

Written in a modern form, the recipe looks like this. (Please note that I made some changes to the original recipe, such as reducing the amount of butter and almond milk used. Other choices are discussed below.)

Domingos Rodrigues’ Fish Curry

Ingredients
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, minced
10 shrimp, peeled, deveined and diced
1 -1½ cups unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 green or finger-hot chilies, chopped
1-3 teaspoons malt vinegar

Masala
6-7 dry red chilis (Kashmiri are best)
3 tablespoons coriander seed
3 teaspoons cumin seed
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped
8-10 cloves of garlic
2-4 tablespoons finely ground coconut
2 ½ teaspoons tamarind concentrate
Water as needed to make a paste

Fish Poach
2-3 mild fish: croaker, pomfret, or cod
Water in medium-to-large sauté pan to cover fish
½ teaspoon salt
½ onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1-2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon whole, black peppercorns

Method
Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. When butter is melted and warmed, add onion and sauté until they start to become translucent. Add the diced shrimp or clams and stir well. When the shrimp have colored and cooked, add the almond milk and stir well.

As the curry sauce warms, prepare the masala. You will need to stir the curry sauce from time to time as you prepare the masala. Individually dry roast the chili peppers, coriander seeds and cumin seeds and set aside. Put all of the ingredients of the masala into a blender (you can pound it if you really want to), and add about 1/4 cup of water to start. Grind until you have a smooth paste, adding water in small amounts as needed for consistency.

Prepare the rice (I used basmati) in salted water any way you wish. Pour enough water in a large sauté pan to cover the fish, but do not yet place the fish in the water. Season the water with salt, onions, white vinegar and peppercorns, cover, and bring water to a boil.

Add the masala paste to the curry sauce and stir well. Cook over medium-low heat for at least 15 minutes to integrate the spices into the sauce. When garlic and spices are cooked, finish the sauce with a bit of salt, peppercorns, diced green chili peppers and malt vinegar.

When the poaching water has boiled, uncover and reduce heat. Slide the fish steaks into the water, cover and reheat to a medium-to-high simmer. Do not boil. Cook fish for 5-8 minutes (less is better) and when done, remove from sauté pan to drain before setting atop the rice. When sauce is done, spoon over fish and rice in the amount desired. Tuck in for a delicious dish.

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A Curry for any Fish from Arte de Cozinha
A Curry for any Fish from Arte de Cozinha

__________

As you can see, there is a great deal of room for creativity on the part of the cook and variation in the dish with the direction from the original recipe which reads, “season with spices”. To determine which spices to use, I consulted some modern Goan recipes for fish curry and constructed a recipe based on these. Of course, by 1680, the Portuguese had extended their presence in India beyond the Malabar Coast to Sri Lanka and up to Bengal in the northeast, but I chose to construct the curry based on Goan recipes simply because that was the “capital” of the Portuguese trading empire on the subcontinent, and the cuisine still bears the mark of their colonization.

Another thing that figured into the choice of Goan spices was the description of Goan curried fish by 16th Century Dutch traveler Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. Huyghen, who was Secretary to the Archbishop of Goa from 1583 – 1589, wrote: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel, which is their daily meat.”

With this description, I felt good about using a lot of tamarind for sourness, and also decided to prepare the water that the fish is poached in slightly, as Huyghen calls it a “broth”. Many historical recipes do not mention doing this, but most cooks do it. It is one of those unspoken directions that can subtly change the flavor of a dish. My additions were simple. I just added a bit of white vinegar in the water to help maintain the consistency of the fish, some cracked peppercorns and a few slices of onion.

I felt justified in using lots of chili peppers, as these had been eagerly adopted from the Portuguese by the Goans and Kanarese in the very early 16th Century. By the time Rodrigues was writing, chilies had long been naturalized on the subcontinent. I did omit the tomatoes found in many modern Goan curries, because this fruit was not embraced by the Indians until the mid 19th-to-early 20th Century.

Coconut can be found in most modern Goan curries as part of the masala, but it is also mentioned in the 1563 edition of, Conversations on the Simples, Drugs and Medicinal Substances of India, by the Portuguese physician living in Goa, Garcia de Orta. Orta wrote, “With this Coquo pounded they make a sort of milk, and cook rice with it, and it is like rice boiled in goat’s milk. They make dishes with it of birds and meat, which they call Caril.”

Map of the World, 1510
Map of the World, 1510

The choice of fish was a bit challenging. I initially cooked this dish with mackerel, but found the strong flavor of the fish to pull against the spicy, sour flavor of the curry sauce. The second time I tried the dish, I went with a milder fish called an Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). The fish were caught locally and were very fresh when cooked, which was a positive factor in my decision-making process. The croaker worked well with the curry, and I recommend it or any other mild fish with this recipe.

A word about measurement. The original recipe uses the measurement, “one fourth” for butter and the amount of almonds used to make almond milk. I based the amount I used for each on the quartillo – the measurement used in many contemporaneous Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican recipes. The quartillo is equal to one pint. I couldn’t bring myself to use 1 pound of butter and so reduced this by half. Its possible that the “one fourth” refers to one quarter of a pound instead of the quartillo. It is difficult to tell.

Lastly, I found the use of almond milk interesting, and wonder if that was not Rodrigues substitution in lieu of coconut milk, which Garcia de Orta noted was of, “poor quality” in the Portuguese homeland.

Other interpretations of this dish are clearly possible given the great latitude for seasoning that Rodrigues’ recipe offers. I made my choices and was clear about why I made them, but recognize that other permutations are possible. The recipe as written is a mixture of hot, spicy and sour which works well with fish. There are titles of other curries in Arte de Cozhina – a Flounder Curry and a Lamb Curry. Alas these are just titles without ANY ingredients or method and like ideal forms will remain just out of reach.

I hope you enjoy these “Through Foreign Eyes” historical curry recipes. I enjoy researching, cooking, and writing about them because they allow one to travel in both space AND time. For example, given Rodrigues’ position as royal cook, this dish could have been served at a royal banquet. Close your eyes and you can hear the light clink of the silver and quiet conversations as the lords and ladies enjoy their special meal. (Words, translation and interpretation of historical recipe, and photographs by Laura Kelley. Special thanks to Adam B. for pointing out this recipe to me.  Thanks to Rachael L. for information about the quartillo.)

N.B. You can purchase almond milk in most supermarkets, but If you would like to make your own it is very simple to do. Place peeled almonds and water in a 1:2 ratio (i.e. 1 cup almonds, 2 cups water) in a bowl and soak at least overnight. The longer the almonds soak, the less gritty the resulting almond milk will be. When almonds are done soaking, strain them and discard the soaking water. Add new water in the same 1:2 nuts-to-water proportion and blend until smooth. For additional smoothness strain through a fine sieve or moist cheesecloth and refrigerate until needed.

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).