Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

This Green Fish Curry Was the Best Meal I Ate While Hiding From Inspectors on an Oil Tanker

by 
Susmita Bhattacharya
June 3, 2021

“You don’t have a visa to enter the country,” he said.

 Of course, I didn’t. We weren’t supposed to go there. But one couldn’t choose where an oil tanker needed to pick up the next oil consignment from. And I was a supernumerary – the captain’s wife – so they couldn’t change their plans for me. We were already on our way out of Brazil, (where I did have the visa to go out and experience all that Rio de Janeiro had to offer) and it was too late to disembark and take a flight back home.

So, we sailed to West Africa with the decision that I would remain locked in my cabin for the duration of the stay there, and nobody would need to know that I even existed on this ship. There could be the odd ship’s agent, loading master, customs or port official who could come on board to inspect or for other business during the loading process. The messman and I prearranged a coded knock on my cabin door, so I could take in the tray of food he’d bring for me.

I felt like I was in a spy film. I’d creep to the window and peer out. The loading pier would be swarming with officials in the sweltering heat, going about their daily jobs in their blue overalls and orange helmet. Unaware of a pair of eyes following them – a pair of subversive eyes – present in their country. Thanks to my habit of over-imagining things, I created these immense sagas involving me being dragged out from under my bed and imprisoned for years in a forgotten jail, languishing there until I was rescued. Or dead. I checked if I could hide under the bed, or if locking myself in the bathroom would work better?

A knock on the door. Not the coded knock I was waiting for.

Panic. I couldn’t actually fit under the low cabin bed. Another knock, a little more urgent.

No items found.

"Ma’am?’"

I ran to the door and pressed my ear against it.

"I’ve brought your lunch."

Damn. You were supposed to use our code. I opened the door an inch. It wasn’t the messman, but the chief cook himself. Of course, he didn’t know the code. A spicy aroma wafted in and tickled my nose. My stomach responded with enthusiasm.

‘Where’s X?’ I asked.

“Oh, he’s a little busy. I made this curry for you. You know, the one you were mentioning the other day. So, I thought I’d bring it over myself.”

He beamed like a child, offering up the green fish curry that I’d talked to him about.

I took the tray in and sat at my desk, moved my books aside and laid out the plate and cutlery. The smell enveloped me in a warm hug. I realised I was feeling really lonely, cooped up in my cabin, with no one for company except the local radio station. I put some white rice on my plate and ladled the fish curry on top.

Grabbing my cutlery, I tucked in. After a couple of mouthfuls, I stopped. The fish curry was divine. I could feel the tang of the tamarind cutting through the freshness of the coriander leaves. The fish was so fresh, buttery soft and flaky. But something was missing. Something very vital for its authentic taste. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I tried again. And then it hit me. Why exactly was I eating a fish curry and rice meal with a fork and knife? Dining in the ship’s mess room required such formalities. The officers dressed in their uniforms (and me in something other than sweatpants) all sitting around the table, waiting to be served our three course meals. But I was in my cabin. I didn’t have to follow any rules. This was fish curry and rice. And I could eat with my fingers. No questions asked.

I dove straight in, mixed the fish with the rice, licked the sauce off my fingers and scooped a ball into my mouth. Ah, this was more like it. I felt the heat of the masalas from my grandmother’s recipe. I smelled the fish markets my father would buy the fish from. I saw my mother stirring the curry in her kitchen. I felt their love as I tucked into my lunch.

 I was hiding in a cabin in a faraway country, but I was home.

Green Fish Curry with Spinach

 | 
 | 
Serves 2 over rice

Ingredients

For the masala

1 small onion

2 tbsp ginger garlic paste or 2 cloves of garlic and 1” of ginger, ground

2 green chillies 


For the coriander paste

Handful of coriander leaves

1 small ball of tamarind, soaked in water, or 1 tsp tamarind concentrate


For the cumin-coriander powder

1 tsp cumin seeds (or ground cumin)

1 tsp coriander seeds (or ground coriander)


For the fish

2 slices of any white fish (Sea Bass, Cod, Haddock)

2-3 handfuls of Fifth Season baby spinach

1 tsp brown sugar

2 tbsp coconut oil (or any other white oil)

1 cup coconut milk

1 cup + 2 tbsp water

Salt to taste

Slit green chilis and coriander leaves for garnish

 | 
 | 
Serves 2 over rice

Ingredients

For the masala

1 small onion

2 tbsp ginger garlic paste or 2 cloves of garlic and 1” of ginger, ground

2 green chillies 


For the coriander paste

Handful of coriander leaves

1 small ball of tamarind, soaked in water, or 1 tsp tamarind concentrate


For the cumin-coriander powder

1 tsp cumin seeds (or ground cumin)

1 tsp coriander seeds (or ground coriander)


For the fish

2 slices of any white fish (Sea Bass, Cod, Haddock)

2-3 handfuls of Fifth Season baby spinach

1 tsp brown sugar

2 tbsp coconut oil (or any other white oil)

1 cup coconut milk

1 cup + 2 tbsp water

Salt to taste

Slit green chilis and coriander leaves for garnish

Ingredients

For the masala

1 small onion

2 tbsp ginger garlic paste or 2 cloves of garlic and 1” of ginger, ground

2 green chillies 


For the coriander paste

Handful of coriander leaves

1 small ball of tamarind, soaked in water, or 1 tsp tamarind concentrate


For the cumin-coriander powder

1 tsp cumin seeds (or ground cumin)

1 tsp coriander seeds (or ground coriander)


For the fish

2 slices of any white fish (Sea Bass, Cod, Haddock)

2-3 handfuls of Fifth Season baby spinach

1 tsp brown sugar

2 tbsp coconut oil (or any other white oil)

1 cup coconut milk

1 cup + 2 tbsp water

Salt to taste

Slit green chilis and coriander leaves for garnish

Directions

1. Make the masala: Grind the onion and ginger garlic paste (or garlic and ginger) and chilis to a paste.

2. Remove the paste and use the same jar to make the coriander paste: Soak ball of tamarind in water and squeeze it until all the flesh is mixed with the water. Remove the seeds and fiber. Strain the tamarind pulp through a sieve into a bowl. Save this water. (Or, use the tamarind concentrate here.) Grind together with the coriander leaves.

3. Make the cumin-coriander powder: Dry roast cumin and coriander seeds on low heat till they give off an aroma. Let it cool down and then grind with a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or coffee grinder to a dry powder. OR, simply roast pre-ground spices.

4. Gently heat coconut oil or any other white oil in a pan. Add the masala and keep stirring for about 5 minutes until the raw smell of the onion disappears. Keep frying it until oils starts leaving the sides of the onion paste.

5. Add the 2 tablespoons of water and keep stirring until you get a rich, caramelized aroma.

6. Now add the coriander-cumin powder and keep stirring until it is well combined with the masala. Add the cup of water and let it come to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer. Add salt to taste, keeping in mind the fish already has salt in it.

7. If it seems like a bit of thinning is necessary, add a couple of tablespoons of the tamarind water into the pan, if you have it saved, or regular water if you used concentrate. This is optional.

8. Let it simmer for a few more minutes. Add the coriander paste, stir in well, and let it cook for another minute.

9. Add coconut milk and brown sugar and stir it in.

10. Add in spinach and stir, letting it wilt down.

11. Finally, season each side of the fish filets with salt, and add it to the pan. Simmer for another few minutes, or until fish is cooked through.

12. Garnish with a few slit chilis and chopped coriander leaves. Serve!

About the Author

Susmita Bhattacharya

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