Grilled Fish With Tamarind And Coconut Sauce

This is a very popular dish among the people of the coastal strip of East Africa. The communities found there value this delicacy so much. The common name for this dish is “samaki wa kupaka.” This name is in Swahili and it is descriptive of the way the dish is prepared. It is also a guaranteed crowd-puller in street foods while people are on the go.

Grilled fish

There is no good translation in English to convey what the dish is all about without losing its original meaning. I really tried to find one, but the best I could come up with is the direct translation, “Fish that has been applied or smeared.” It does sound more interesting this way and as you keep reading, you will find out why this translation fits the dish to a T. At the end of it, you will also start calling it samaki wa kupaka. It is finger-licking good and you will eat it to the last piece (except for the bones of course!)


500g Full fish (any type will do: Tilapia, red snapper, etc)
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 inches ginger, grated
2 green chillies (or more if you like it extra spicy) and a handful of fresh coriander leaves, mashed together to a pesto-like consistency
Juice of one lemon or 10ml
2 cups coconut milk or cream
1 tablespoon of tamarind sauce
Salt to taste
Pinch of black pepper or according to your taste
1/2 teaspoon of paprika
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
A grilling basket (optional but it will make the grilling process easier)

Marinating and grilling the fish:

In a bowl, make a marinade by mixing the garlic, salt, black pepper, lemon juice, ginger, and oil. Divide this mixture into two equal portions.

Start by cleaning the fish and removing all the scales. Next, make three incisions on each side of the fish and apply half the marinade. Make sure it gets into the incisions and apply some in the stomach cavity. Cover it with a plastic wrap and put in the fridge for about two hours.

Place the fish in the grilling basket and place on the grill that has been set on medium heat. If grilling on an open charcoal cooker, make sure that there are no flames because they will scorch the fish, making it taste bitter.

Grill each side for five minutes. The grilling basket will help you turn the fish easily because it will prevent it from sticking and flaking.

Coconut sauce:

Make this sauce as the fish is marinating so that it can have enough time to cool down.

In a pan, add the coconut milk, paprika, tamarind paste and the remaining marinade; Place it on medium heat, and keep stirring continuously until it thickens to a porridge-like consistency.

Turn off the heat, remove the pan, and set aside for it to cool completely.

Application of the sauce:

Gently open the grilling basket, taking care not to tear the fish. If it sticks, let it cool slightly and try again. Apply the thick sauce to it and close it up. Return it to the heat and place the side that has the sauce facing down.

Let it grill for three to five minutes or until the sauce dries up.

fish grilling basket

Repeat the same procedure of gently opening the grilling basket and apply the sauce on the second side. Return the fish to the fire and grill the second side until it’s dry.
The fish is now ready; serve it with ugali (polenta), gravy and some vegetables or kachumbari (salsa).

I am sure that after going through the recipe you can now see why the dish is known as “fish that has been applied or smeared.” This meal is ideal for an outdoor Sunday afternoon session as you are relaxing with your friends and family. The unique taste and flavor imparted into the fish by the smoke as some of the sauce falls into the fire will set you apart in the culinary arena.

Featured images:

Phil Turner loves food, and is especially fond of fish cooked outdoors. To him it smells and tastes infinitely better than burgers and sausages.

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