31 January 2014

An Act of Cod: Indian-Spiced Fish & Chips

An old standard finds enlightenment. 

Fish & chips is an unpretentious meal so cover your table in newspaper, gather everyone around and simply tip the food onto the table.  Eat together, with your fingers, from a shared pile of food.  Trust me.

Pakora Fish & Chips

a note on time management: If you do everything at once, it can take a few hours to prepare this meal (several things need to wait between prep and use). You can break up the work over a few days, doing the prep when it's convenient. The tamarind sauce can be made several days before or can be done the day of; same for the garam masala. The pickled onion should be made at least a couple of hours before serving to allow it to mellow; the potatoes need at least couple of hours in ice water, so prep these at the same time. Both can be made up to a day ahead. The batter needs to sit for a while before using, so mix up the batter and set aside while you do the first fry of the chips, batter and fry the fish (which will stay hot longer than the chips) and then do the second fry for the chips.  I know it sounds complicated, but stay with me, it's worth it.  If your kitchen is better stocked with tools than ours, it might even be easier than I'm letting on.

for the tamarind sauce:

1/2 lb tamarind pods
4 dried hot cherry peppers
boiling water
2 tbsp demerrara sugar (or more, to taste)
1/2 c. cold water (or more, as needed)

Put the tamarind pods and dried peppers in a heat-proof bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Cover the bowl with a plate and set aside to let soften. Do some laundry, take the dogs for a walk, change the bedsheets, dig out all your paperwork for filing your taxes... anything... but don't worry about the tamarind for an hour or longer. Run the tamarind mixture through a food mill to separate the skins and seeds from the pulp. This will result in a thick and sour paste. Dissolve demerrara in about 1/2 c. of cold water and stir into the paste. Continue to thin with cold water until it reaches the desired consistency (slightly thinner than commercial ketchup). Use right away or store in the refrigerator until you need it.

for the quick-pickled onion:

1 red onion
juice from 1 lemon
salt, to taste

Thinly slice the onion. I use a mandolin because evenly thin slices make me happy; but slice it in a more rustic manner if you like. Pack the onion into the bottom of a glass jar and add lemon juice and salt. If the onion is not completely covered, you can stir it once in a while or if you are lazy like me, just add more lemon juice or pack the onion down more tightly to cover. Set aside leaving at room temp for at least two hours or store in the fridge if you are leaving for longer than the afternoon.

The spices are toasted when they deepen in colour and become
immensely fragrant. You can buy pre-made garam masala as a time-saver
but you will be so pleased you made your own.

for the garam masala:

2 green cardamom pods
3 black cardamom pods
1/2 tbsp whole cloves
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp black peppercorns
6 pieces mexican cinnamon bark (or 1/2 stick cinnamon)

Combine all spices in a dry cast-iron skillet. Heat on medium-high (err on the side of medium... I think of this as south-southeast on my stove knob) stirring or swirling them around in the pan occasionally while heating. When spices become very fragrant and slightly browned, remove from heat. Continue to stir once in a while as they pan cools down. When they are cool enough to handle, grind the spices in a spice grinder (do them in batches as needed). Store them in a glass jar but do not cap until completely cooled.

for the chips:

1 medium-sized potato per person
peanut and/or sunflower oil for frying*
nigella seeds (jeera)

*see notes in the fish section on choosing your pan and checking the temperature

We used Emeril Lagasse's technique for french fries. Before working on the fish, cut your fries and get them soaking... leave them soaking until you have the fish batter mixed.  Do the first chip fry before cooking the fish and the second chip fry after. When you remove the chips the final time, put them in a sieve suspended over a heat-proof bowl to drain the oil. While they are still piping hot, sprinkle them with salt and nigella seeds and toss to coat. The nigella seeds lend a je ne sais quoi that you don't want to skip.

"It came in this morning, love.  Landed yesterday."

for the fish:

1/2 lb. fresh local white fish per person 
1-2 tbsp garam masala

We used cod because locally-caught wild cod is in season, also cod is delicious, but buy whatever local sea or freshwater whitefish is best where you live.

adjust the batter ingredients as necessary, but for 2 lbs of cod (4 servings):

1/2 c. chickpea flour (besan)
1/3 c. whole wheat all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground tumeric
1/4 tsp salt
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/3 c. water
soda water as required
peanut oil and/or sunflower oil for deep frying

Cut the fish so you have 2 pieces per person.  Rub fish with a very thin coating of salt and garam masala. You made far more garam masala than you need, so don't worry about using it up, you want to season the fish delicately, but not overwhelm it.  Put the fish in the refrigerator until you are ready to batter it, but plan to cook the fish within a couple of hours.

Make the batter: Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Add the lemon juice and water; stir until evenly mixed (all the lumps should be gone).  Add soda water, a little bit at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency.  You want a fairly thin batter but it should still coat the back of your spoon.  Let the batter sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. 

This is a good time to do your first chip fry; use the same pan for the chips that you will for the fish, so choose a pan to suit both purposes. 

The chick pea flour will absorb some water and thicken the batter (but this also means it will cook properly, not taste dry and grainy).  Thin again as needed with soda water.  If you over-thin, add some all-purpose flour to thicken.

Fry your fish:  For deep frying, you need the oil to be deep enough to submerge your food but you also need enough space at the top of the pan to accommodate the change in volume when you add food and allow for bubbling-up as it fries.  So leave a couple of inches head-space.  Choose your pan based on how big your fish pieces are, how many you want to cook at one time, and how much oil you realistically have.  I fried our fish one piece at a time in a small-ish saucepan simply because we we were a bit low on oil.

I fried in a combination of peanut oil and sunflower oil.  I will admit that I would have used only peanut oil if we'd had enough around.  I thought there was more than there was (I've been having that problem lately).  Luckily, we also had some sunflower oil and it has the same smoke-point as peanut oil, so they combine easily for frying.  Use either or both.

We don't have a thermometer, but the good news is deep frying is not brain surgery.  The oil is hot when you can see long streaks in it and if you insert a wooden spoon handle to the bottom, some little bubbles rise up rapidly (for the first go at the chips, the little bubbles should rise up easily and swiftly, but not rapidly).  If you insist on using a thermometer, do the fish at about 375F.  (Emeril says 350F for finishing your fries, but I did ours at the same temp as the fish, more or less).

Fresh cod cooks up moist and flaky and feels like butter in your mouth.
A fantastic juxtaposition to the pakora batter.
Shoo all the pets and miniature humans out of the kitchen, just in case there is a hot oil incident.

In batches, coat the fish in the batter and let the excess drip off.  Lower gently into the oil and fry until the batter is golden brown (about 4-5 minutes).  Agitate the fish once in a while to ensure it doesn't stick to the bottom.  If you underestimated the size of your fish and it isn't completely covered, turn it over after a couple of minutes.  Adjust your heat as necessary so that the batter takes nearly 5 minutes to cook properly.  When cooked, fresh cod will be flaky and moist and have the mouthfeel of butter.  The batter will be crisp and thin and gold like the sun.  (The summer sun, not the winter sun.)

Remove the fish with a metal slotted spoon and drain in a sieve suspended over a heat proof bowl or pan.  

for serving:  

In my opinion, this is a meal best eaten with your fingers from a shared plate.  So, cover your table with a few layers of newspaper.  Tip your sieve full of fish and your sieve full of chips onto the paper.  Serve with tamarind sauce for dipping and quick-pickled onion to cut the richness.  If you eat with people who don't like a mess, you can provide a fork, or just tell them they're in the wrong house.

Guaranteed to be a success.


After listening to the recent BBC Food Program on fish & chips, we had an epiphany: fish and chips are a canvas, not a prescribed product.  The traditional Canadian presentation is beer-battered and served with tartar sauce, coleslaw and, if you're lucky, a slice of lemon.  Newfoundland has a variation that includes dressing (as in, bread stuffing) and gravy. There's nothing wrong with those formulas, but there's no need to feel stuck to it.

The show made us desperately wish we lived closer to the shop featured in the radio program, because, let's face it, east Indian spiced fish and chips sounds like an astoundingly good idea.  
So we did what we do when there is food we want but can't get: we talked about it for days.  We talked, we debated this type of batter over that, we consulted the miracle of the internet to get a sense of the flavour profiles of fish curries, we hummed and hawed over sides.  We discussed the winter pantry's suitable dried fruits and flours.  

Nigella seeds are so magical we jump at any appropriate opportunity to use them. There was a definite tumeric-garam masala-tamarind theme across the fish curry recipes I read. The batter is modeled on pakora. There are as many pakora batters as there are pakora cooks, so I read a lot of recipes then used this handy guide for making deep fry batter when developing my recipe.

When the concept was well-hatched, we bought a boatload of fresh cod from The Fish Depot.  And by fresh, what I mean is, "It came in this morning, love.  Landed yesterday."  

Then we spent a weekend eating testing fish and chips.  I mean, after all, we have an obligation to be certain that the recipe works, right?

hey.... where did this cat come from?

Tamarind sauce & lemon-pickled onion on Punk Domestics


  1. I love Indian flavours and fish, so this is a perfect combination! Have you come across the Spice Men - a BBC2 TV programme? Tony Singh is big on introducing spices into the more traditional British dishes.

    1. At the risk of sounding immodest, I cannot say enough about how well the flavours work... and it really is about indian flavour, not about heat. Have not heard of the Spice Men, but you've peaked my curiousity. I'm off to google Tony Singh...

  2. i love your title, first of all--so clever. and what a satisfying combination of flavors and textures! i don't eat a lot of fish, but when i do, i like it just like this. :)

    1. thank you, grace! I was particularly proud of myself for the post title, but it's always nice to get some validation. :)

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