Fiery & Complex
Goan prawn curry is a complex and layered essential dish for lovers of Goan food. I typically shy away from dishes with this amount of heat, but the generous number of dried red chilies in this recipe is essential to the overall flavor. The fieriness is balanced by a hefty dose of vinegar and sugar, making this prawn curry a powerful, in your face celebration of west coastal Indian flavors.
If you are heat-shy, I suggest you increase the tomato quantity a bit and empty the chilies' seeds before you toast them. The additional tomato will help make up for the loss of the body from reducing the chilies. I use whole Kashmiri red chilies that are prized for their bright red color and fruity, but not too hot, flavor.
A spicy, tangy dish from a sauce of tomatoes and chilies, balchao is a gift from the Portuguese during their colonization of Goa. It is essentially a pickle made with either fish, pork, or prawns, designed to preserve them during sweltering weather. The combination of vinegar, spices, a generous amount of oil (1/4 cup), and—traditionally—quite a bit of salt, made it an important summer dish. Goan prawn curry keeps well in the refrigerator for several days and is perfect for entertaining because it can be made ahead. I have only used two tablespoons of oil and only added enough salt to balance the flavors, but taste your masala and decide what works for your palate.
Dry or Saucy
I prefer my curries on the dry side, but if you want a saucier gravy, I would simply double all the ingredients except for the 3 used in the marinade section (prawns, salt, and turmeric). I suggest doubling all the rest of the recipe to keep all the flavors in balance. Given my American palate, the first time I made prawn balchao, the sauce seemed a bit too intense for me, so I added a nice dollop of plain yogurt to temper the curry. Feel free to play around with what tastes good to you. Unless you prefer your food on the mild side, I encourage you to try this mind-blowing and vibrant Goan specialty.
P.S. If you would like to try a Goan chicken curry try my xacuti!
See the Notes below before you cook.
Prawn Curry (Balchao)
- 1 pound medium prawns ~ Or shrimp, any size, shelled and cleaned
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon sea or table salt ~ Substitutions
- 5 whole dried red chilies ~ More to taste, see Notes below
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns ~ More or less to taste
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds ~ Black or yellow work too
- 1 inch cinnamon stick
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ginger paste
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste
- 1/4 cup malt vinegar ~ Or cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons oil ~ I use avocado oil
- 1 cup onion ~ Finely chopped
- 1 cup tomatoes ~ Chopped, see Notes below
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- sea or table salt ~ To taste
- If your prawns or shrimp are not shelled and clean, begin with that task. Place them in a bowl and coat them with the salt and turmeric. Set aside until needed.
Toast Whole Spices
- Gather the rest of your ingredients.
- In a small pan dry toast the whole spices. Remove the seeds from the dry red chilies if you want to reduce their heat. Toast the spices for several minutes until they are fragrant.
- Grind the spices in a spice grinder. Mix together the ground spices, vinegar, ginger, and garlic. Set aside.
Make the Sauce
- In a large pan over medium-heat, when hot, add the oil and the onions. Sauté them until they turn golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until the moisture evaporates, the sauce thickens, and the oil begins to separate. This will take another 5 minutes or so.
- Add the spice and vinegar mixture to the tomato and onions and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the sauce no longer smells raw. Add the shellfish and sugar. Cook gently for a couple of minutes or until the shrimp are just cooked through.
- Taste for seasonings, adding sugar, salt, or a bit more acid if needed. Make sure that you add enough salt. Heavily spiced dishes need more salt than you may think. If the sauce is too intense, add some yogurt or cream to mellow it out.
- Preparation shortcut: buy shrimp that has already been cleaned and is ready to cook.
- I use whole Kashmiri red chilies. If you want a very hot curry, use hotter chilies and add more to your taste.
- I don’t prefer plum tomatoes because they are firm and take twice as long to cook down.
- I made this curry a rather dry dish. If you want more sauce, double all the ingredients except the marinade: shrimp, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and turmeric. I suggest this so the flavors stay in balance.