Fried Fish with Onions

Fried Pompano with Onions

Bengalis eat a lot of fish (maach) and fish is a major part of Bengali identity. The classic Bengali fish are almost all bony riverine fish of one kind or the other. As a kid my favourites were magur (a type of catfish) and koi (the small climbing perch). The magur, I remember, was always purchased alive from the fish sellers who came to our door and kept swimming either in a bucket or the kitchen sink before it was time to cook them for lunch. That thin magur maacher jhol (gravy) with long wedges of potato was one of my very favourite things to eat as a child. Later I learned to appreciate fish like pabda (another type of catfish), rui (a type of carp), katla (another type of carp) and particularly the unfeasibly bony ilish (hilsa, a type of shad) in various other richer and spicier preparations (for example, as shorshe-bata maach).

PompanoOne of my sister’s and my very favourite fishes, however, as made by our mother was not a Bengali fish per se: the white pomfret (there’s also a larger black pomfret). A marine fish with one large central bone, the pomfret is actually eaten more in Southwest India, but in our air force travels my mother had added it to her repertoire. Our very favourite pomfret preparation may have been her take on the Parsi green masala fish made with cilantro and mint puree (I’ll have a recipe for this soon). But we also loved it simply fried up with onions and served with a simple lunch of thin mushoor dal and rice (more typical Bengali families would do the same but substitute pieces of rui or similar). Here is my take on this simple preparation. It is not my mother’s recipe but it’s not a million miles from it.

CleanedThe fish I use here is not pomfret. Pomfret is often available in South Asian groceries but I stopped buying frozen Indian fish a while ago. A very similar fish is available in parts of the US (the butterfish) but the one that is ubiquitous in Asian groceries in the US and which is somewhere between the white and black pomfrets in size and character is the pompano, and that’s what I generally use as my pomfret substitute. It’s very easy to clean with a nice sharp knife (I love my Suisin petty knife for this purpose).

Ingredients:

  • Two medium-sized pompano, cleaned and cut into 3-4 pieces (including the head)
  • A paste made with the following: 1/2 tspn turmeric powder, 1/2 tspn Kashmiri or other mild chilli powder, 1/4 tspn
    aamchur (mango powder) and salt to taste + 3-4 tspns of vinegar.
  • A medium red onion, thinly sliced.
  • 2 tblspns minced cilantro
  • Oil

PreparationPasteMasalas

  1. Cut thin slits on both sides of all the pieces of fish and coat with the masala paste, rubbing it into the slit. Set the fish aside for 30 minutes or so.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pan and when it is very hot add the fish pieces (in two
    batches) and fry for 3 minutes on each side. Remove the fish to a paper towel-lined plate when done.
  3. In the same oil saute the sliced onions till they have begun to soften. Off heat mix in the cilantro.
  4. Place the fish in the plate you will serve them on and dump the
    onions/cilantro over.
  5. Eat with rice and mushoor dal.

NotesCoated

  1. Some of the best meat is in the head so eat the head! And if you want to be a true Bengali you’ll eat the eyes as well.
  2. You can make more of the paste and make it thicker. You can also make it spicier with hotter chilli powder. If you don’t have aamchur (though Amazon does), leave it out or use some ground cumin (not the same thing at all but fine in its own right).
  3. Resist the temptation to move the fish in the pan before the 3 minute mark on either side—you don’t want it to stick to the pan and have the skin fall apart.
  4. You could do this with any other whole fish you like.

Fried Pompano with Onions

3 thoughts on “Fried Fish with Onions

  1. You have no idea how this brought back a flood of memories! I lived with a Bengali family in Delhi and will never forget mashima chasing down a fish truck from west Bengal to get them to sell her ilish before it reached the market! Mmmmmm maachar jhol including with those boris (sp?), shorshe bata… mmmmmmmmmmm

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    • Boris, yes—though we should clarify that this is pronounced not “Boris” as in the muppet who is now the UK’s Foreign Secretary for some reason, but as “bo-rees”, the plural of bori, pronounced “bo-ree” and refers to small dried disks made with lentils (usually) and used in Bengali fish curries. Looks like you ate well in Delhi!

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  2. I should also clarify, before anyone gets angry, that my recipe in this post is not a Bengali recipe. Marinating the fish in a paste of vinegar and spices and frying it is more of a Southern/Southwestern Indian thing. Bengalis would usually just coat it lightly with a mix of salt, turmeric powder and maybe a bit of chilli powder.

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