Gulai is a term that refers to dishes served in a curry-like sauce, and ikan means fish. It has obvious links to Indian influence throughout the archipelago, but it strictly local. If you go to a Padang-style restaurant in Indonesia or a homestyle Malay restaurant in Malaysia, dishes like this will feature heavily on the menu. We’ve Westernized it a bit to be more of a meal in itself (with rice) by adding tomatoes, okra, and green chilies. Doing so makes it more Indian-like, but if you wanted to be really authentic, you could just leave these out. This is just about our favorite dish that we’ve made since we got here. Reasonable people could find enough food here for four people, but the two of us ate it up ourselves. The secret is really fresh fish, of course. You want a medium-texture white fish (not cod, not swordfish; maybe something like flounder or snapper) for this recipe.
The herb that we use here is daun kesum, or long-stemmed mint. You almost certainly can’t find that in the West, which is why we’ve included lemon basil and regular mint instead. It’s close, but no cigar.
3 garlic cloves
1 inch galangal
1 inch fresh tumeric, or one tsp. ground
1 stalk of lemongrass
1 tsp. fish curry powder
1 1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. black peppercorns
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 stalk of curry leaves
2 cups of tamarind water
2 medium tomatoes, cut into six pieces
10 okras, stem ends chopped off
4 green chilies
1 torch ginger bud, halved
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 pound fish (flounder or snapper)
Make the spice paste by combining all the ingredients in a food processor and blending until smooth. If you use a mortar and pestle, be sure to finely chop the lemongrass first or you’ll never break down the fibers.
In a large skillet or wok, hit the oil over low heat. Add the spice paste and the curry leaves and fry, stirring often, until very aromatic and the oil starts to separate, about 8 minutes. Add the tamarind water and bring to a boil. Add tomatoes and ginger bud, reduce to a simmer, and cook uncovered for 5 minutes. Add the fish and simmer for 5 minutes more. Add the okra, chilies, and coconut milk and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove curry leaf stem and ginger bud. Serve over rice.