I always go on about the regionality of Indian cuisine but this salmon recipe is not regionally specific at all. It uses combinations of ingredients and flavours that might be very loosely dubbed southwestern Indian but it’s not from any particular place. It’s a recipe I improvise anew each time I make it, and on this occasion I’m even improvising the chief mode of cooking—roasting—for the first time. Usually, I do this as a braise. I generally advise against cooking anything for the first time if there’s an audience involved, but this actually came out rather well and so here it is.
Bengalis are renowned fish eaters and I’m sorry that I’m not presenting a Bengali fish dish here—I didn’t have any appropriate fish at hand. When you live in a small town in southern Minnesota your fish options are very limited and frozen wild salmon is often the best fish available to us. The problem is that salmon is not very well suited to Bengali cooking—its flavour and texture are just too different from the various bony riverine fish used in classic Bengali fish recipes. There was a time when I used to purchase frozen Bengali/Bangladeshi fish from South Asian groceries but I stopped doing that some years ago. This was partly because the quality was variable but mostly because I came to have strong reservations about the environmental cost of feeding the appetites and desires of the South Asian diaspora. I am referring not just to the carbon footprint of the fish but also the state of fisheries in Bengal and Bangladesh. So, now I make do with what’s available here.
And it’s not that there isn’t good fish available in general or that there aren’t some plausible substitutes for use in Bengali cooking: monkfish, for example, works very well. But salmon, as I said, doesn’t. And so this recipe, or more accurately, the various versions of this recipe, came about as a way of cooking with salmon; and it very, very roughly approximates the approaches of some southwestern coastal cuisines where fish more akin to American salmon are in fact used (cf. rawas, or “Indian salmon”). No one from those parts of India will recognize this dish as their own and they might find it “wrong” in some ways but it’s not pretending to be anything but a mongrel/hybrid Indian dish. Let’s get to it.
- 1 lb salmon fillets: cut into 6 pieces (I used a little over 1 lb here)
- 1 medium red onion: sliced thinly
- 1 tblspn crushed fresh ginger
- 1-3 red chillies
- 1 pinch black pepper
- 1 small pinch Sichuan peppercorn
- 1 small pinch fennel seeds
- 1/2 tspn turmeric powder
- 1 small piece of cinnamon/cassia bark (see the picture below for a clearer sense)
- 1.5 cups chopped tomatoes
- 3 fresh Thai chillies, slit in half lengthwise
- 2 tblspns chopped cilantro/dhania
- 1/2 tspn sugar
- Salt to taste
- Vegetable oil
Preparation (see illustrated guide below)
- Preheat oven to 425ºF.
- Grind ingredients 4-9 to a coarse powder
- Kiss my ass if you feel strongly that the ingredients should be listed in the order in which they appear in the preparation.
- Heat oil in a medium skillet and saute the onions until they’ve begun to brown.
- Add the crushed ginger and saute some more.
- Now add the ground dry spices and salt and saute for a couple more minutes over medium heat.
- Add the tomatoes and sugar and cook down to a thick sludge.
- Smear a baking dish with 1-2 tablespoons of the sludge and place the fish slices on it.
- Coat the fish thoroughly with the rest of the sludge, place 1/2 a green chilli on top of each piece and sprinkle the chopped cilantro over.
- Place in the center of the oven and roast till done.
- Serve with steamed rice.
- I know the cook time at the end is not very precise. I wasn’t paying close attention to the clock. I think I pulled it out somewhere in the 12-15 minute range? Remember: the sludge is cooked before the dish goes in the oven so you can really cook it how you like from that point on. Go longer with a lower temperature if you like, or even blast it up to 450 and get it out faster.
- This is pretty hot with three dried red chillies plus the green chillies on top. Cut the number down as you prefer but use at least one red chilli in the ground spices.
- You can skip the oven part completely and just put the fish and green chillies into the pan, gently cover with the sludge, cover the pan and simmer till done; or add some water for a thinner sauce and cook till done; or instead of water add 1 cup coconut milk and cook till done. That makes this three recipes for the price of one. You’re welcome.
Come back tomorrow for another hybrid/mongrel dish, this time with chicken.