Balinese Fish Curry. Tropical Nirvana

Hot balmy nights, evening white wines in a shady garden, a Balinese fish curry, these little pleasures are to be savoured, fleeting moments conjuring food memories of my other ‘spiritual’ home, Bali.

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Indonesian food goes very well with Melbournian summers. Some dishes are simple and economical: others demand some effort, especially this fresh Balinese fish curry, with its long list of ingredients for the paste, involving a market trip to an Asian grocery to source some of the more unusual ingredients. A good home-made curry paste makes all the difference. It really is worth the effort.

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I learnt this classic Balinese fish curry at Janet deNeefe’s Casa Luna cooking school,  which is attached to the Honeymoon guest house in Ubud, Bali. The curry sauce is rich, fragrant and complex and tastes just like Bali on a plate.

Preparing the curry ingredients at the Casa Luna Cooking school, Ubud.
Preparing the curry ingredients at the Casa Luna Cooking school, Ubud.
The paste being ground in the huge Uleg.
The paste being ground in the huge Uleg at Casa Luna, Ubud.

The curry paste.

  • 6 garlic cloves,
  • 1 teaspoon of shrimp paste/belacan/terasi ( toast over a flame before adding)
  • 3 large chilli, seeded. These chillies are not hot but give colour and depth of flavour.
  • 1 tablespoon fresh turmeric ( substitute dried powder if unavailable)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger
  • 3 candlenuts ( or use macadamia nuts )
  • 1 teaspoon tamarind
  • 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns.  I prefer white.
  • 2 stalks lemon grass, white section only. Save leaves and stems for adding to Asian stock.
  • 3 shallots, roughly chopped.
  • 1 large tomato
  • 3 small hot chillies
  • 2 tablespoons galangal
  • 1.2 tablespoon kencur ( not available locally)
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons palm sugar
  • stalk of torch ginger (optional)
  • pinch of nutmeg

Prepare the ingredients by roughly chopping larger items. Put everything into a large Uleg, mortar and pestle or food processor and grind to a smooth paste. I began mine in the uleg  (an Indonesian mortar) but quickly switched to the processor. You may need to add a little oil to blend them in a processor.

Home prepped ingredients in my little uleg
Back home. Prepped ingredients in my little uleg

Other ingredients

  • 400 grams of fresh mackerel in chunks ( 3 cm by 3 cm) ( or any firm fish that is suitable to curry) I used sea bass. NOTE. I would recommend 600-700 gr of chosen fish.
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil, NOT olive oil.
  • 3 salam leaves ( not available fresh in Melbourne)
  • 1 lemongrass, bruised and tied in a knot,
  • 1 torch ginger shoot bruised ( hard to find in Melbourne)
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup or more of coconut milk
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1.12 cups water.

    Cook the curry paste in oil, adding lime leaves and lemon grass.
    Cook the curry paste in oil, adding lime leaves and lemon grass.

After making the curry paste, by mortar or processor, heat a little plain oil in a wok and add paste to the hot oil, along with lemon grass tied in a knot and the lime leaves.  Also add the salam leaves and torch ginger if you happen to have them. Stir around. Next add the chunks of fish, stirring around until they change colour, for a minute or two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAdd 1 cup of water, simmer gently then add the coconut milk. I use more than the stated 1/2 cup . Just add and taste. 1- 1/2 cups is about right for me. Check seasoning and add salt to taste.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I had more sauce and not so much fish, I added a handful of green prawns, unshelled. Cooking them with shells on adds to the depth of flavour, imparting a fragrant tropical bouillabaisse sensation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHave the rice cooking while making the curry. Balinese tend to use fat rice: Australian medium grain rice is perfect with this dish. Serve the curry in a big bowl with chopped coriander and lime wedges if you are lucky enough to have some.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGo into the garden, pretend you’re in Bali, and see how much turmeric you can splash about on your napkins. Tropical Nirvana to share for four. 

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20 thoughts on “Balinese Fish Curry. Tropical Nirvana”

    1. I tend to omit but am happy to substitute turmeric powder, as it is essential, and my Asian shop had run out. The other bits- such as salam leaves and torch ginger may be available in Queensland or Darwin. I am happy to leave them out. This is the first time I added the prawns and the sauce really did go to another depth of flavour. The paste can be halved and frozen for later. It’s a huge paste for one curry. I think hard tofu, beans and so on could be substituted too,

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  1. I love the addition of the flower shots – and that smoke line you captured – now that is really showing us your camera skills – 🙂 ha!
    and what fresh food this was (mmm – drooling) and what a large mortar and pestle… just wish I could sample that curry sauce –

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  2. Very nice, but a lot of difficult to find ingredients! I wonder if it could be made by substituting some of these??? And when you mentioned bouillabaisse, I wonder how these curry flavours would taste with squid or octopus??? So much to think about – thanks for the inspiration.

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  3. The thing with Balinese curry is that it only tastes like Bali if you use these ingredients for the paste- otherwise it becomes something else. any fishy things would work in this curry, along with Tempe and beans, tofu and other vegies. These ingredients are common enough here, except for two things, but I imagine that they would be harder to find in Sheffield.

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