While posting my recipe for Masala Salmon in the first edition of my Indian Home Cooking Week series I mock-apologized for not including a Bengali fish dish. This because I am a Bengali and Bengalis are renowned fish-eaters and for my first fish recipe to be a non-Bengali dish seemed like a bit of a betrayal, even to one who spent most of his life in India outside Bengal and who speaks Hindi better than Bengali. Well, here I am now with one of the most iconic of Bengali fish dishes: shorshe-bata maach. (Maach=fish; shorshe=mustard; and here bata=ground into paste.)
This preparation falls in the “jhaal” or spicy category of Bengali fish dishes. It is most famously made with ilish (hilsa in Hindi, a type of shad), which is the national fish of Bangladesh. It is also often made with fish such as pabda and tangra (I’m afraid I don’t know their Western names). As I’ve said before, in the past I was an enthusiastic purchaser of frozen Bengali fish (usually Bangladeshi in origin) from South Asian groceries but I eventually stopped that out of ecological concerns (and yes, yes, I know this doesn’t seem to stop me from eating bluefin tuna when I’m at sushi bars in LA—and yes, I really should). And so I make this now with locally available fish that at least texturally resemble ilish or pabda, and don’t, like salmon, introduce strong aromas/flavours of their own that just feel wrong. I’ve used monkfish with some success in the past; on this occasion I used perch.
Apart from the problem of getting sustainable versions of the fish most associated with this prep for the Bengali palate there’s also the problem in the US of getting proper mustard oil and being able to properly grind the mustard seeds. The difficulty with the former is that for arcane reasons (that involve the potential of using it to make mustard gas) it’s not possible to get mustard oil here with the right amount of eye-watering pungency. The difficulty with the latter is that most of us in the US do not have shil-noras at our disposal—and if I, for one, did I wouldn’t know how to use it properly anyway.
What is a shil-nora, you ask? It’s a type of super heavy mortar and pestle traditionally used to make pastes in the Bengali kitchen. For almost everything else a shil-nora might be used for a coffee/spice grinder or mini-blender is an acceptable substitute. But you can’t make a wet paste in a coffee grinder and no blender I’ve seen can make an acceptable paste in the small amounts necessary for a dish like this. So I end up powdering the mustard seeds in the coffee grinder I reserve for my spices and then adding water to it to make a thick paste. The problem either way is that you risk the paste becoming bitter on account of the hulls of the mustard seeds. The grinding motion of a shil-nora properly deployed, on the other hand, separates the hulls from the paste as it grinds the seeds.
But as I say, I wouldn’t know how to use a shil-nora properly even if I had one and so I try to mitigate the risk of bitterness in a combination of ways: 1) I sometimes use a 50-50 mix of brown/yellow and black mustard seeds (though this does sacrifice the pungency even more; 2) I sometimes add a lot of water to the mustard seeds and try to strain out as much of the hulls as I can before they settle; 3) usually, I follow my mother’s recommendation and deploy milk in the cooking process to control any bitterness that may arise.
Okay, on to the recipe!
- Flaky white fish, 1 lb, cut into 6-8 pieces.
- 4 tblspns mustard seeds.
- 1.5 tspns kalonji (nigella seeds) or panch phoron.
- 2 tspns turmeric powder.
- 2 tspns red chilli powder.
- 2-4 Thai chillies, slit lengthwise.
- 1 cup water.
- 3/4 cup milk.
- Oil; preferably the most pungent mustard oil you can find.
Preparation (see illustrated guide below)
- Coat the fish pieces with 1 tspn each of the turmeric and red chilly powder and some salt.
- Grind the mustard seeds to a powder, mix with the remaining turmeric, red chilly powder and salt and add 1/4 water to make a thick slurry.
- Mix the remaining water and milk together.
- Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a pan and shallow-fry the fish (you want to use enough oil and get it hot enough that the fish doesn’t stick or flake apart). Remove the fish carefully and set aside.
- Add a little more oil to the pan and let the kalonji or panch phoron go for a quick swim–say 15-30 seconds.
- Add the mustard paste and stir well.
- Add the water and milk, mix thoroughly and bring to a boil.
- Add the fish carefully, shake the pan to mix everything well and reduce to a simmer.
- Add the green chillies and simmer till the fish is done (no more than 15 minutes probably).
- Serve with steamed rice.
Enjoy! And come back tomorrow for the last installment of this edition of Indian Home Cooking Week.