Maachher jhol is a name for a rather broad genre of fish dishes in Bengal—it’s not actually very descriptive at all. “Maachh” means “fish” in Bengali and “jhol” (rhymes with “goal”) would translate to “gravy” or “sauce” in English. So “maachher jhol” literally means “fish in gravy”. As such, in English “fish curry” would be an entirely adequate translation in the sense in which “curry” is used in India. The particular sub-genre of the preparation that this recipe falls into involves a paatla or thin jhol and various versions of this form one of the central pillars of Bengali comfort food. In its most basic form the dish involves mustard oil, kalo jire, ginger, green chillies, fish and water. Vegetables are often added: sometimes potatoes, sometimes brinjal/eggplant, sometimes cauliflower. It’s also not uncommon to add bori (a type of dal-based fritter). Though tomatoes and garlic are not very traditional in Bengali cooking, it’s not unheard of for either or both to be used as well. Some may use no tomato, some may use a little, some more than a little. My approach comes to me from my mother, who learned to cook after marriage while living outside Bengal. Her cooking therefore employs more tomato than that of my Calcutta aunts but is—as far as I’m concerned—no less Bengali for that.
The fish used for this kind of a dish in Bengal would be some kind of freshwater fish or the other—ideally carp of some kind or magur (a type of of catfish). Of late I’ve been using small fillets of ocean perch, available in mega packs from Costco. It’s a very simple dish to make and very tasty. The normal way to eat it would be with rice; the missus, however, enjoys it just as a fish stew, straight out of the bowl.
- 1 lb mild white fish, fillets or steaks
- 1 tspn panch phoron
- 1/2 medium red onion, chopped
- 1 tspn ginger paste
- 1/4 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- 1/4 tspn chilli powder
- 1 cup chopped tomato
- 2 mediium potaotes, cut lengthwise into 4 pieces each
- 2-3 green chillies, slit
- 2 tblspns oil (preferably mustard oil)
- 2 cups water
- 2 tblspns chopped cilantro
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a a saucepan that can hold all the fish in one layer.
- When the oil is hot send the panch phoron for.a brief swim in it.
- When the panch phoron is fragrant but not yet popping add the onion and saute till softened.
- Add the ginger and saute for another 30 seconds or so.
- Add the haldi and red chilli powder and saute for another 30 seconds or so.
- Add the potatoes and saute for a few more minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and salt and saute till tomatoes have broken down.
- Add the water and cook on a high simmer, covered, till the potatoes are almost done.
- Slide the fish in, return to a simmer, top with the slit green chillies, cover and cook till the fish and potatoes are done (about 10 minutes).
- Garnish with the chopped cilantro and serve with steamed rice.
- In the unlikely event that you don’t have panch phoron but have kalo jire/kalonji, you could just use that instead. I do like it with panch phoron though.
- There are a couple of traditional steps I skip. It is usual, for example, to marinate the fish lightly with salt and haldi and shallow fry it and keep aside. It’s also usual to similarly shallow fry and keep aside the potatoes or whatever veg you’re using. I avoid the extra fat and don’t really miss it. And it’s a much faster and less fussy dish too without those two steps. (When using eggplant, however, I do fry it first.)
- Once the fish are in, don’t stir; just shake the pan gently to mix.
- You could leave out the red chilli powder entirely and use only the green chillies for heat.
- Similarly you could cut down on the tomato or leave it out altogether.
- Ditto for the onion.
- Though I say to use large potatoes, sliced lengthwise, you may notice from the picture that I used small potatoes, halved. That’s what I had.