South Indian food, like Sri Lankan, has the potential to be explosive on the palate–not just in terms of the heat factor but also as far as the combination of flavors involved. I especially like Chettinad food, which hails from a certain region of Tamil Nadu. In fact, I first had Chettinad food in Colombo, at a restaurant called Anjappar. I could immediately recognize all the spices, but also found that they used them differently than us Sri Lankans. In this great dish, for example, the whole seeds of cumin, fenugreek and fennel are fried whole in oil first before the other ingredients are added. You spend a lot of time building up a very complex gravy, and then add the fish at the end, letting it cook for only 5-7 minutes. While this recipe might look daunting because of the number of ingredients used, the time is all in the preparation. If you assemble everything that you will need first, it will be as quick as a Chinese stir-fry, and give you a very tasty dish for your troubles. The author recommends tilapia, cod, halibut, whitefish or pomfret for this recipe, though I used a Bangladeshi fish called Pabda.
3 tbsp. canola oil
4-6 curry leaves (optional)
1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. urad dal
1 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup peeled and quartered garlic cloves
1 green chili, cut lengthwise
1/4 cup chopped tomato
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1/4 tsp. cayenne powder
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. black pepper and cumin powder mixture
1 tsp. salt
2 cups tomato sauce
2 tbsp. minced ginger root
1/2 tsp. tamarind paste
1 pound firm-fleshed fish cut into 1-inch thick steaks
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1.) Place oil is a large saucepan over medium heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, add curry leaves, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and urad dal. Cover and fry until seeds pop and urad dal is golden brown (about 30 seconds).
2.) Add onion, garlic, chili pepper, and tomato. Stir fry for about a minute. Blend in turmeric and cook for another minute.
3.) Add cayenne powder, curry powder, black pepper and cumin powder, and salt and stir and cook for another minute.
4.) Add tomato sauce, ginger root, and tamarind paste. Blend well into mixture. Add about 1-2 cups of warm water. Stir well and allow to simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes over medium-low heat.
5.) When mixture begins to boil, add fish pieces and spoon sauce carefully over fish. Add coriander. Continue cooking over low heat, covered, for 5-7 minutes until fish is opaque and flaky. Note: Sauce should be stirred gently during cooking process, and more tomato sauce may be added if necessary.
6.) When fish is cooked, remove saucepan from heat. Cover and let remain at room temperature until serving. If fish is not served immediately, reheat only briefly before serving.
From Healthy South Indian Cooking by Almelu Vairavan & Patricia Marquardt