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).
One 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.
The 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).
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- In the same oil saute the sliced onions till they have begun to soften. Off heat mix in the cilantro.
- Place the fish in the plate you will serve them on and dump the
- Eat with rice and mushoor dal.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- You could do this with any other whole fish you like.