When I moved to Chennai 9 months ago, I remember making a mental note of all the things to do here to fully experience the ‘big city life’. At the top of the list right under street shopping, was to check out its diverse food scene. Restaurants, old and new, recommended and side-lined, I wanted to check them all out for myself; especially the numerous cafés that kept mushrooming all over the place offering different cuisines. A few of these places we did try, and were not particularly impressed with. At the risk of sounding like a complete snob, I’m going to say that there was even one such café where the bolognese tasted like (pav) bhaji! In their defence though, it was a pretty good bhaji.
Scouring the city’s numerous restaurants in search of a good meal is not an easy job. I remember mentioning this to my father-in-law this one time, and he very appropriately summarized it as the paradox of choice. It is especially hard also, if it’s you who’s suggesting it to the people you’re asking to go with you – that’s like an added level of pressure where the outcome is not in your hands! Anyway, this is a story with a happy ending..
There was a newbie we chanced upon in the heart of the city that we thought was worth giving a shot. I ordered the herb-crusted fish that came with a spiced tomato sauce and boiled baby potatoes. It went down a treat, and by the time I ate my way through it, I was thinking up ways of recreating it.
My attempt was solely based off of what I had tasted, so I ended up using the general theme as a template and experimenting with the flavours. Fish and tomatoes – being a classic combination – works well with thyme and oregano, and the pinch of cumin really amplified its personality. It didn’t taste exactly like what I had eaten, but it was every bit delicious! Every recipe and every bite has a story. And this is how this dish was born.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves 2)
For the fish:
Sea bass fillets (mine were 200 grams each)
2 teaspoons black pepper cons
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, picked from their stems
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
2 teaspoons of bread crumbs
Olive oil – 2 teaspoons
Juice of half a lime
For the tomato-cumin sauce:
4 ripe tomatoes
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
Olive oil – 2 teaspoons
A pinch of sugar
For the sauce:
Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for a few minutes until the skins start to peel off. Run them under cold water to easily peel back the skins. Roughly purée them in a blender and set aside.
Dry roast the cumin seeds in a skillet for about a minute until they start to colour slightly; bash them coarsely in a pestle and mortar or using a rolling-pin. Set aside.
Pour olive oil in a pan over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Once they start to become translucent and colour slightly, add in the blended tomatoes, cumin, and sugar; season well with salt and pepper. Let this sauce bubble for 10 – 15 minutes on a medium heat, until it darkens slightly and reaches the right consistency.
For the fish:
Wash the fillets thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Add the pepper cons, salt, oregano, bread crumbs, and thyme leaves to a pestle and mortar and evenly crush to form a coarse spice rub. Lay the fish out on a plate and coat both sides evenly with the rub.
Heat the olive oil in a pan; once searingly hot, lower the fish into the skillet skin-side first and cook until the outside is crispy and the insides are cooked through. Turn the fish and repeat for another minute or so (poke the fish with a knife once you think it’s nearly done. If it goes through with no resistance, then it’s cooked).
Turn off the heat, squeeze some lime juice in the skillet and de-glaze before pouring over the fish. Serve immediately with the tomato and cumin sauce.