Javanese sea bass & spinach curry

A creamy yet light fish curry with a slight smoky note from the toasted spices and a gingery hint of galangal. This recipe comes from Central Java where I was shown it by Chef Didik, who rolled his hypnotically as he spoke, especially when expressing delight at the aromas wafting from the pan. He used a freshwater snakehead fish, which he first fried in a turmeric-tinted bumbu. I have simplified the recipe for quick, one-pan cooking.


  • 3 lemongrass sticks
  • 2 thumbs of galangal, skin scrubbed
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 6 salam leaves (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 6 cardamom, lightly cracked
  • 1 star anise
  • 300 ml (1¼ cups) chicken or fish stock
  • 200 ml (generous ¾ cup) coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon dark palm sugar (gula jawa), shaved
  • 4 x 100 g (3½ oz) sea bass fillets, cut into large chunks
  • 200 g (7 oz) baby spinach leaves


Use the handle of a knife to smash the lemongrass and galangal, then roughly chop them both to release the flavours. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the lemongrass, galangal and salam leaves. Fry to slightly caramelise in the heat.

Add the turmeric, cardamom and star anise and cook for a minute longer. Splash in the stock and coconut milk and season with salt and the palm sugar. Bring to a quiet bubble, lower the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes to infuse the flavours. It can be made in advance up to this stage.

Strain the sauce and discard the flavourings, which have done their work. Taste for seasoning.

Return the sauce to the pan and bring back to the boil. Add the sea bass and simmer for 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked and flaking. Stir through the spinach leaves to wilt into the sauce before removing from the heat.