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Jonathan Wilkins | 5.23.2022

Whole Grilled Catfish & Curried Vegetables


This is an easy to execute dish that would work equally well on a stovetop or at a campfire. It’s an ode to simple food, found close to home, that’s eaten at the peak of freshness. References to meals very much like it can be found in dishes from places as varied as India, Nigeria, the Caribbean and France. That being said, it also utilizes food sources like channel catfish and staghorn sumac that have been relied on here, in the eastern half of North America for thousands of years. Sumac has a tart, citrus-like flavor that pairs well with fish. If you can’t find it or it's not endemic to your area, lemon halves will work as well. 

I gathered the sumac berries roadside on the way home from fishing and most of the vegetables came from my backyard garden making this more an assembling of ingredients than a meticulously planned out meal. I suppose you could do this with fillets, but I’d encourage you to use a whole fish and serve it family-style. Share it with a handful of folks you care about and talk with each other while you eat it.


Feel free to recreate or approximate this method by using whatever fish or vegetables you have on hand. Also note that I’ve been intentionally vague by referring only to “curry” because this is again a place where adjusting to your preference is totally fine. This recipe uses a variety that is heavy on turmeric, coriander and cumin.  Those spices can also offer a slightly bitter finish which is where the addition of a little sweetness really comes in handy.   

Ingredients

Whole Skinned Catfish (aprrox 1.5lbs)

  • 1 Small Eggplant
  • 2 Handfuls Okra
  • 1 Med Red Onion
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Lg Tomato
  • 1 Med Bell Pepper
  • Hot Pepper (to taste)
  • Staghorn Sumac Berries
  • Curry
  • Tomato Paste
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Veg Oil

Gut and skin your fish, then rinse well with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. 

To prepare the fish, liberally season with salt and pepper both inside and out.  Fill the inner cavity with well-washed bunches of staghorn sumac berries and cook whole on your preferred grill. I used a cheap big box store, kettle-shaped affair with lump charcoal and mostly indirect heat. After about 20 minutes I repositioned the grate to get direct heat and crisp up the exterior. The flesh will probably split in a few places, so take care when removing from the grill. Allow to cool for a few minutes before discarding the sumac and serving.   


Prepare vegetables by rough chopping ingredients into bite-sized pieces.  Mince garlic. For the curry, saute eggplant, onion, okra, and bell pepper hard for a few minutes with a bit of vegetable oil.  Once that starts to soften and take on some color, add the chopped tomato and garlic.  Also add the hot pepper of your choice either whole or split (I used something akin to a serrano). Sweat the tomato and garlic briefly, then lower heat to medium.  

Now add a bit more oil and 2 tablespoons of curry.  More oil and curry can be added a bit at a time until all of the veggies have been coated in a paste.  Slowly cook the vegetables and curry for a few minutes, being sure to keep everything moving with a wooden spoon and taking special care that the spices don't scorch. At this point add 2-3 tablespoons of tomato paste and enough water to cover everything in the pan. Leave uncovered and simmer on low for another 5 minutes.  Towards the end of cooking, start to taste the sauce and add sugar until you’ve reached a balance of pungent, spicy, and sweet that works for you.

To serve, I placed the fish atop a platter of rice and ladled curried veggies on top of the whole thing. My family dug in with forks and fingers, building plates piled high with rich spices and steaming meat.  It was a good way to end a day.