When I was a kid, I would never turn down anything my mother smothered in a tomato and onion gravy called bhuna. Bhuna is a type of South Asian curry that’s thick and paste-like, in contrast with the usual saucy korma or makhani. It has a subtle heat from a generous dose of Kashmiri red chili powder, and a touch of acidity from tomato and vinegar.
Here, I’ve made my favorite bhuna, smothering fried fish steaks in the tomato and onion curry. The acidity of the sauce works perfectly with seafood, but the great thing about bhuna is that it works with anything. Once you get a grasp of the basic ingredients, steps, and flavors, you can swap out the fish for whatever else is in your fridge, for a flavorful dinner on the fly. It’s versatile enough to smother sweet wedges of roasted winter squash for a hearty vegetarian main, or it can even be the base for a braise of collagen-rich lamb shanks. When my fridge is looking especially bare, bhuna with hard-boiled eggs over rice can make a quick and satisfying meal.
To make the bhuna, I start by preparing the fish. Here, I’ve used dorade, but catfish works especially well; its meaty flesh can stand up to the bold curry. I like to keep smaller fish whole, deeply scoring the flesh and rubbing the seasoning into the cuts. When I have larger fish, like these, I cut them into fat, one-inch steaks. A sturdy chef’s knife or cleaver makes it easy to cut through the spine. Keeping the fish bone-in ensures that it stays moist during the cooking.
I then generously season the fish with a mixture of kosher salt, turmeric, and Kashmiri red chili powder before shallow-frying the steaks. Frying the fish gives it a crisp texture and blooms the spices, so it all ends up with a sunset glow. The fish is already mighty tasty at this stage, so I usually eat the fried head, un-smothered, as a sneaky cook's snack. Once the fish is all fried, I set it aside while I make the bhuna in the same pan. I pour off the excess oil, reserving just enough to cook the sauce.
I start by cooking the sliced onions until they're speckled brown. Because I’m not interested in a jammy caramelized onion, I sauté them over high heat, so they brown while still maintaining some structural integrity. This develops some of the onions' sweetness while maintaining a little of their bite.
After that, I add the spices and cook until they bloom and become aromatic before adding the diced tomatoes. I cook down the tomatoes until the curry becomes thick, then add a touch of vinegar for extra acidity before returning the fish to the pan, submerging it in the sauce.
I serve up the smothered steaks over fluffy white rice alongside a simple cucumber and onion salad. Fish bhuna was always a favorite of mine growing up, but, as I said before, you can bhuna anything—charred cabbage wedges, snappy shell-on shrimp, or you can even use it as an upgrade to everyday roasted chicken thighs. Once you’ve made one bhuna, you can make them all.