I’ve heard numerous people, including Nordic chef Magnus Nilsson, speak about fish balls being a beloved comfort food from childhood onwards. I didn’t make the acquaintance of fish balls until I was an adult. During a particularly hectic period of my life, I discovered I could come home from one job, eat fish balls from the can while standing over the sink, then run to an evening teaching job. They were the easy protein boost that I needed to get to the end of my day. I thought they were a magnificent invention.
I searched through a selection of church cookbook covering the last 60 years; there, I found recipes with comments from the contributors reflecting that fish balls, even when made from scratch, were considered a quick, sustaining, though humble, meal. A note beneath a recipe which touched my heart called for a can of fish balls and white sauce. Then, if you wanted “an extra fancy meal,” you could add ½ cup of thawed frozen peas. That would make it special, indeed.
Canned fish are making a comeback
People are again looking at canned fish with appreciation. So much so that the Star Tribune’s Variety section had a recent feature story on the trend. It included a lovely picture of Husmor Fish Balls, though no suggestions on how to serve them. I am here to correct that oversight.
The recipe below, Curried Fish Balls, requires a little more work than fish balls in white sauce. However, it is a balanced-meal-in-a-dish, and I have added ½ cup of thawed frozen peas to make it extra fancy. I recommend that you treat yourself to such a colorful and nutritious touch, too.
“Curried Fish Balls” sounds like a fusion recipe from the 60s. Actually, it’s probably from the 40s. The 1840s. That was the decade when prepared curry powders were introduced to Denmark. Commercial mixes were new, but spices were familiar. Denmark had been engaged in trade with India since 1616 at this point and the ingredients of these blends really weren’t that different than the sauces used in Denmark since the 1300s.
Spice mixes have a long history in Denmark
Medieval Europe’s earliest known cookbook, Libellus de arte coquinaria, was written in Danish, Icelandic, and Low German in the early 1300s. It had 10 recipes for sauces, all consisting of a mixture of spices. The “Lordly Sauce,” had a base of nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. All these flavors would be familiar in any curry mix. So by the time the 1840s rolled around, Danish cooks were probably quite open to buying their spices already roasted, ground, and blended. Pork meatballs in curry sauce became poplar at that time and has remained a favorite weeknight dinner.
A couple of thoughts on the recipe:
- Use the curry blend of your choice. Try brightly flavored, citrusy blends for fish balls.
- This dish is best the next day. You can make it the night before and have truly easy dinner prep the following evening.
- The recipe makes enough sauce to coat the fishballs. If you like your curries with lots of sauce so it sinks into the rice, double the liquid ingredients.
- The recipe uses brine from the fishballs. The brine’s salinity varies by brand. Taste before adding any additional salt.
- Leeks out of season are expensive. Substitute green onions.
- In a hurry? Use an 8.25 ounce can of carrots instead of fresh.
- The cilantro, tomato, and peas are optional. Use others, or none, if you’d like.
The sauce lends itself to experimentation. Please let us know what variations you create.
Serve the curried fish balls over rice, boiled potatoes, or mashed potatoes. This is a comfort food, after all, and should be served with the carbohydrate you love best. It is delicious eaten from a bowl while standing over the sink, but I hope that you will serve it at a table and savor it. Whether it is eaten with family or by yourself, make it extra fancy, and treat yourself well.
Curried Fish Balls
One 28-oz can of plain fish balls, half of the liquid drained
1 tablespoon butter
2-3 cloves garlic
1 small leek, sliced with some green parts or 2-3 green onions
2 large carrots, cut in coins
2 tablespoons Balti curry mix or similar citrusy curry powder (You may want to start with 1 tablespoon and add to taste.)
1/2 teaspoon ginger
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup whipping cream
½ cup frozen peas (optional)
¼ cup cilantro or finely chopped parsley
1 diced tomato
Saute carrots, leek, and garlic in the butter until softened. Add butter as needed.
Add the curry powder and ginger. Mix thoroughly.
Slowly add the cream, then sprinkle in flour, stirring continuously.
When the sauce thickens, add the liquid from the fish balls and stir. Cook the liquid down to your desired consistency.
Add fish balls and stir to coat them in curry. Let them simmer until heated through.
Rinse the frozen peas in cold water, then add to the fish and sauce.
Serve over rice, topped with cilantro and chopped tomatoes.
This can also be served over small boiled or mashed potatoes.
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