Fish curry is one of the staple dishes for Goans. Photo: Gia Claudette Fernandes
If you ask any self-respecting Goan what they would like as their last meal, the answer will most likely be - Xit Codi.
Whether Hindu, Catholic or Muslim, every Goan’s favourite meal is the humble Xit Codi (pronounced as “sheath” and “co-dee”). Literally translated it means rice curry. And when we talk about curry in this context, we specifically mean fish curry.
The ubiquitous bright orange curry lapped up across Goan homes and the world.
The deliciously tangy curry cooked in larger quantities so that there’s always some left over because, as we all know, it tastes better the next day and the day after.
In fact, we Goans love our fish curry so much that while having it for lunch, we are already dreaming of mopping it up with bread for breakfast the next morning. And we usually squabble over who gets dibs on the “kaalchi codi” (yesterday’s curry).
In Goa, it’s perfectly acceptable to greet your friends, acquaintances and even sworn enemies (usually over property disputes or whose pigs ate up whose chicken feed) with the question - “What was the curry today?”
What it actually means is, “What kind of fish did you have in today’s curry?”
Goan men and women often indulge in lengthy and passionate discussions about the day’s catch – from freshness to size and demeanour (Ok, I just made up the last one but everyone likes happy-looking fish, right?)
Xit Codi is our staple food. It's what sambhar-sadam is to people in the South and dal-chawal is to people up North.
Saunter into any Goan home, on any given day except maybe Sunday, and you will find fish curry with the day’s catch simmering in a pot.
The curry is essentially a spice paste of grated fresh coconut, garlic, ginger, dry coriander seeds, cumin seeds and red chillies.
As souring agents, we either use tamarind, kokum or raw mango. From surmai (king fish), pomfret and rawas (Indian salmon), to smaller catch such as anchovies, sardines, mackerel, red snapper, milkfish and so on, all kinds of fish could find their way into the curry.
Another interesting ingredient used in the Goan fish curry is tephal or tirphal, a variety of the Sichuan pepper. The tiny dried berries lend a distinctive flavour that’s hard to miss.
The curry can be made using only ground coconut or adding coconut milk as well. I like to use both because it results in a beautiful full-bodied curry rounded off with a delicate creaminess.
No two Goan homes will ever make fish curry in the exact same way.
There are slight variations in the use as well as proportions of ingredients, so that no matter where you eat it, you will enjoy the essence of Xit Codi, but with subtle differences.
The Goan Catholics make it differently from the Hindus, as do the North Goans from their Southern counterparts. Even within these broader categories, you will have a thousand different versions.
Don’t be daunted by the lack of a so-called gold standard when it comes to Xit Codi, just be delighted by the fact that there’s so much more goodness for you to sample.
Traditionally, we eat our fish curry with Goan boiled red rice. It tastes just as good with any plain white rice as well.
Accompaniments could be anything from lightly sautéed vegetables with generous amounts of grated fresh coconut, fried fish or prawns or shell fish, beef chilly fry or spicy Goan sausages, taking the experience to a another level.
I can still write reams about the Goan obsession with Xit Codi, but nothing could surpass the immortal words of our beloved Konkani poet Bakibab Borkar, who said it best:
Please Sir, God of Death
Don’t make it my turn today, not today
There’s fish curry for dinner.
My version of Goan Fish Curry
1 kilo fish of your choice (pomfret, rawas, surmai, mackerel)
1 grated fresh coconut
6-8 red chillies (I use the Kashmiri variety)
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
3-4 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
A small ball of tamarind, soaked in 1 cup of water 1-2 slit green chillies
1 medium onion
1 medium tomato
1 to 1.5 cup of thick coconut milk
1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil
Salt to taste
1. Clean, wash and slice the fish, sprinkle a little salt and set aside.
2. Grind the coconut, ginger, garlic, coriander and cumin seeds, red chillies, turmeric powder, and peppercorns into a smooth paste using the tamarind water, and extra water if needed. You may wish to grind the onion and tomato as well for a smoother curry or leave them for later.
3. Take a wide-bottomed curry pot or pan and place it on heat. Add a tablespoon of coconut or vegetable oil. If you haven’t ground the onion, then finely chop it and lightly fry until translucent. Now tip in the coconut masala or spice paste and mix well. Add enough water to get your desired consistency, around 1 to 1.5 cups should do at this stage.
4. Bring to a boil and let it simmer for 10 minutes before you gently drop in the slices of fish. This is also a good time to add the chopped tomato and slit green chillies. Do not stir the pot as the fish could break, gently lift and shake if you must. Leave the pot open and let the fish cook for 10 minutes before you add the coconut milk. 5. Check salt and seasoning and let the curry simmer for 3 to 5 minutes before turning off the heat.
6. Serve hot with Goan rice (boiled red rice) or steamed white rice.
Gia's love for cooking goes back to idyllic summer vacations as a child, when she watched in fascination as her paternal grandmother plucked chickens, fried fish, stuffed sausages, pounded spices, and stirred huge cauldrons of aromatic curries over wood fires in their family home in Goa. She promises to decode the vast repertoire of Goan cuisine and culture for you, from revisiting popular favourites to unveiling the lesser-known gems.