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Fish with Pineapple and Ginger

Pineapple once epitomized the exotic, whispering sweetly of the riches of distant lands. Introduced into Europe in the early 1500s, it soon appeared in coats of arms and architectural ornamentation. In colonial Virginia, since it was the one newly discovered New World fruit that couldn’t be grown locally, it became the symbol of generous hospitality, and appeared as a motif in serving pieces and dining room decoration.

Canned pineapple may have slightly diminished the excitement generated by the fruit, but the flavor still says "tropics." And canned pineapple offers one important advantage: like melons, pineapples have no starch reserves, so they will not sweeten further once picked. That’s why, when you buy a fresh pineapple at the grocer, you sometimes find that it’s so acid it makes your eyes water. (And why, if you’ve eaten pineapple near a plantation, you were probably astonished by the ambrosial sweetness and incredible juiciness.) Canning means pineapple can be picked after the onset of ripening, and still be sold at a reasonable price, even thousands of miles from home.

Pineapple is a native of South America, but the world’s leading producers today are Hawaii, China and Southeast Asia, and pineapple appears in myriad Asian and Polynesian dishes.

In this dish from Malaysia, you can use fresh pineapple if you want, but canned (in natural juice) will be sweeter, probably less expensive, and definitely less work. However, though I permit many short cuts, I do try to insist that, if a recipe says fresh ginger, you use fresh ginger. It’s not that much more work, and the difference in flavor is considerable.

Both pineapple and ginger contain anti-inflammatory compounds, so this can be a very soothing dish, as well as a tasty one.

Fish with Pineapple and Ginger

1 lb. fish fillets (any firm-fleshed whitefish), cut into bite-size pieces

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

¼ to ½ tsp. red pepper flakes (to taste)

1 tsp. finely grated lemon rind or ground lemon grass

1 can (20 oz net wt.) pineapple chunks in juice, drained (reserve juice as treat for chef)

1½ tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. salt

cooking oil

1 large onion, chopped

½ tsp. sugar

3 med. tomatoes, chopped

cooked white rice

Mix 1 tsp. turmeric with 1 tsp. salt, then rub over fish pieces. Heat 2 Tbs. oil in a large frying pan. When oil is hot, add the fish and fry for 2 minutes on each side. Remove fish to a plate.

If needed, add enough additional oil to pan to cover bottom. Add the onion and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the ginger, red pepper, lemon grass or rind, and remaining turmeric and fry over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Stir in the sugar, tomatoes, pineapple and fish pieces. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily. Serve at once, with white rice (about 4 cups cooked rice should suffice).

Serves 4‑6.

Notes regarding authentic ingredients:

Sometimes, authentic ingredients are easily replaced by other ingredients that are more readily available locally—like the lemon grass vs. lemon rind above. Lemon grass is more authentic, but using lemon rind doesn’t alter the flavor appreciably, and is usually more accessible and cheaper (plus, you get a free lemon with every rind you buy). Some ingredients, however, have no parallel.

Dried shrimp paste, which is so optional I didn’t even list it above, tastes like nothing else in the world. It is made of sun-dried shrimp that is ground with salt. If you want to make the above recipe really authentic, add ½ to ¾ tsp. of shrimp paste when you stir the spices into the sautéed onions. Shrimp paste is definitely one of those ingredients that says, "I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore." In some bland dishes, it adds a piquancy that is intriguing. I am not fond of strongly fishy tastes, however, and find that adding shrimp paste to a fish dish is definitely "pushing the envelope" for me.

Shrimp paste, which you can find in Asian grocery stores, so if you want to try it, it’s not a major investment (and throwing it out is not so heartbreaking, if you don’t like it). If you love fishy flavor, or have a passion for culinary extremes, it is an option you may want to explore. You should know, however, that your kitchen, and probably any adjoining rooms, will smell like shrimp paste, and it’s not a great smell; in Asia, the locals hold handkerchiefs over their noses as they walk through the food markets, where shrimp paste, shark fins, and a host of other dried seafood sit in open barrels. In the US it’s sold in small, closed containers, which helps. It is milder in flavor and aroma once cooked, so I don’t want to discourage you entirely from trying it, I just want you to know what you’re getting into. I will add that the "serve at once" direction for this recipe becomes more important if you use shrimp paste. It doesn’t improve with age.

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