Malvan’s famous fish: part one, the spice paste



Malvan is a little town on the west coast of India. I have never been to it, nor do I know too much about it; but I can tell you that growing up, our nanny/cook (Bai) was Malvani, and she made the most amazing fish. It still haunts my dreams. The fame of her fried bangda (mackarel) spread among relatives and friends. People who worked two floors away from my mom who saw her once a month in the office canteen would phone her to be reminded of the ingredients.

This was not a quirk of our cook or our family. Malvani fish with its red spice paste is renowned all over the Internet. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, google ‘Malvani’ and come back and tell me what you find. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Satisfied? When I left for foreign lands one of the heirlooms I carried with me is a scribbled version of this recipe. In this post I will describe the method of making the paste. In two following posts, I will describe how to use it in a couple different fish recipes.

A warning note: family recipes in India are handed around with amounts like a fistful of this, a little bit of that. It is all andaaz se, as it is known. So the amounts here are not handed down from Mount Olympus, but just the proportions that I used for a successful rendition.

Malvani fish masala (spice paste)

This makes about 3/4 cup of the paste which will last in the fridge in an airtight container for some months. The vinegar has a preservative action.

Ingredients (dry spices):

  • 2 large not-hot dry red chilies (Kashmiri, Ancho, Pasilla, or other such)
  • 5 small hot dry red chilies (cayenne)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick or few small
  • 10 cloves
  • 2 big black cardamom
  • 1 tablespoon white poppy seeds
  • 2 teaspoons fennel
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper seeds

Ingredients (wet spices):

  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1 inch piece ginger, peeled
  • 1/4 cup coconut
  • half teaspoon tamarind paste
  • 1/3 cup white vinegar

Dry spices for Malvani fish masala

The dry spices are to be roasted on a griddle until an aroma starts to arise…but do be careful not to burn them. I did this in stages so I don’t mix the seeds that roast faster with the bigger, slower ones…so do the fennel seeds and the poppy seeds in one batch (they won’t take long) and the rest in the second batch.

Note about why spices are roasted before grinding them: I believe it dries them out a little, makes their skin papery, and easier to grind into a fine powder.

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Roasted dry spices for Malvani fish masala

Once the dry spices are roasted, wait a few minutes for them to cool and then grind them in a clean coffee grinder.

Now collect the wet spices in a small blender. In goes some ginger, some garlic, half a teaspoon of tamarind paste, a handful of grated coconut. Put in the dry spice powder. To lubricate the blades, add some white vinegar.

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Wet masala for Malvani fish masala

By the way, Do Not Add Any Water. Malvani Masala not like the H2O. A note about the usage of vinegar: this is not traditional in Indian cooking, but came in by way of the strong Portuguese influence in that region (Goa was colonized by the Portuguese right up until 1960).

Grind it up to a paste, and your red Malvani masala for fish is ready.

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