“Knock, Knock”. It’s 9:30 AM on Saturday. “Who is it?” I had already been awakened by Roosters at sunrise, then fell back asleep. Yawning and rubbing my eyes, I opened the door and found a local fisher with a basket full of fish he had just caught in the Indian Ocean. That was my Saturday morning when I was serving with the US Peace Corps in a remote Islamic village South of Mombasa, Kenya.
Like the herd of elephants that sometimes came down at night or the monkeys that snatched my bananas faster than a tornado, the abundance of fresh fish in my village was stunning. While living there, I was fortunate to learn about East African Swahili culture. Arabs, Persians and Indians, who came to the Kenyan coast to trade with African Bantu from the 9th to 15th centuries, influenced Swahili cuisine to become “fusion”. I was always fascinated to see how local women with exotic spices (such as cardamom, cumin & turmeric etc) magically turned fresh fish and tropical fruits into something incredibly delicious. This week, I’m replicating “Swahili Coconut Fish Curry” using ingredients locally available in Northern California.
First, I clean one large fresh red snapper and cut it into pieces. Then, I marinate the fish inside and out with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and juice from a ½ lemon. Separately, I make the stock with fish head, tail, fin, 2 whole garlic cloves, 1 thumb-size ginger and juice from a ½ lemon. Then, I heat 2 tablespoons of virgin coconut oil and stir fry 1 onion (chopped) and 4 garlic cloves (minced), ½ thumb size ginger (sliced), 1 lb fresh tomatoes, 1 green pepper (chopped) and 2 green chilies (chopped) with 3 Tablespoons curry powder, some sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Next, I add the marinated fish pieces and 2 cups of fish stock to the mix and simmer for another 20 minutes. Lastly, I sprinkle 2 Tablespoons of cilantro before serving it with white rice.
Hmm…. the tropical aroma of coconut in my kitchen… am I back in Mombasa? When I picture a spoonful of fish curry in my mind, I drift away to Kenya.. . “mimi ni mafrica. Sitaki bey ya muzugu” (“I’m African. I don’t want the gringo price”, in Swahili). It brings me a fresh memory of myself haggling prices with local farmers in a Kenyan market while dressed in kangas (I.e Swahili garment) and carrying a hand-woven bag. My eyes get teary. Wow. It is close to what I used to eat in my village! How delicious!!
Pairing this Swahili coconut fish curry with a wine wasn’t easy. If I were eating it in Kenya, I would pair it with pombe (i.e. warm Kenyan beer. Sorry I didn’t have electricity for 2 years!). In California, I searched for a wine oily enough to stand up to the richness of coconut, fruity enough to match the subtle citrus tones, aromatic and spicy enough to compliment the mild curry and ginger. How about a 2008 Husch Gewurztraminer from Anderson Valley? The inter-racial marriage of the food & wine was quite interesting. Not only did the wine’s aromas of tangerine, lychee, and honeysuckle together with its flavors of slightly bitter grapefruit and ginger add complexities to the food, but it was also light enough that it did not overpower the flavor of the delicate Swahili dish.
So, dinner & wine was perfect. However, my Kenyan home-stay mom would be terribly disappointed, if I weren’t eating the fish head… who wants to try these fish eyes?