Madras fish curry

Madras fish curry, meen kuzhambu, gets its flavour from the shallots, tamarind and tomatoes and features the taste of the just-cooked fish to perfection.

In my grandmother’s time, Chennai was called Madras. I am told that to this day many locals will insist that Chennai is the name of the city, but the word to describe the things of Chennai is still Madras. Regardless of its name, this recipe has its heritage well before the British made a trading outpost in Madras in the early 1600s CE. This is the typical way that people from the south of India will make fish curry.

This recipe comes from the brief time the family were in Madras. It became a family favourite very quickly.

It is a wonderfully simple dish to prepare and has no exotic ingredients. The original recipes used pomfret, an unobtainable fish in Sydney, but any firm fish will do. This recipe uses snapper, but we have used kingfish, cod, and ling. Snapper is still our first choice,

The only thing to ensure with this recipe, like all the fish and seafood recipes in the book, is that you only cook the fish to a just-cooked state. This will require constant attention and is not a set and forget approach. You need to keep spooning the gravy over the fish to ensure it cooks consistently.

You are going to poach the fish, not stew it.

The best way to enjoy this dish is just to serve it with some plain basmati rice, and serve it straight from the stove.

If you would like a fish curry with coconut, try the Keralan fish curry. If you want a hot fish curry, then try the Goan fish curry.

the recipe

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  • 800 g snapper fillet - cut into 5cm pieces

for the marinade

for the gravy

for serving


  • Place snapper into a bowl, sprinkle with the turmeric and chilli powder and toss, ensuring that each piece is coated. Cover and set aside for one hour.
  • Heat a small frypan over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds and toss gently until the seeds start to colour and become aromatic. Remove from the heat, allow to cool then grind to a fine powder.

to cook

  • Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan or karahi over medium-low heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds and fry for 30 seconds, then stir in the shallots. Sprinkle with the salt and fry gently until softened and lightly golden-brown. This will take around 10 minutes.
  • Add the garlic and fry until raw garlic smell has gone.
  • Add the curry leaves and ground coriander. Mix well and fry for two minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes, tamarind liquid and green chillies. Mix well and simmer until the tomatoes are cooked and the oil is separating from the sauce – about 10 minutes. You may need to add a little water to stop the gravy from becoming too thick, but do not allow it to become watery.
  • Add the fish, cook for a further five minutes or until just cooked through. Avoid stirring or you will break up the fish. Just continually spoon the hot gravy over the fish. You are poaching the fish, not stewing it.

to serve

  • Remove from heat, add the coriander leaves and lemon juice. Mix very gently, decorate with the sprig of curry leaves, then serve.


  • Gingelly oil is Indian sesame oil. It is very different from the Asian sesame oil, being much less intense in flavour. Substitute with vegetable oil if unobtainable.
  • Any firm fish will work in this recipe. Cod, kingfish, ling or mackerel will work well.
  • A sprig of curry leaves will have about 10-20 leaves on it. You need around 30-40 leaves in this recipe or less if using dried leaves.

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Serving: 225 g | Calories: 411 kcal | Carbohydrates: 17 g | Protein: 44 g | Fat: 19 g | Saturated Fat: 2 g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 5 g | Monounsaturated Fat: 10 g | Trans Fat: 0.1 g | Cholesterol: 74 mg | Sodium: 819 mg | Potassium: 1150 mg | Fiber: 4 g | Sugar: 9 g | Vitamin A: 1522 IU | Vitamin C: 212 mg | Vitamin D: 20 µg | Calcium: 146 mg | Iron: 2 mg

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