The story of this dish is as good an allegory as any of how recipes travel and mutate over time and space. It was one of my sister and my absolute favourite dishes made by our mother when we were children. It was not made very often but was always looked forward to as a treat. This was only partly because she made it with white pomfret which we loved—both for its sweet taste and for the fact that it wasn’t as fiddly as the usual riverine Bengali fish. I think we knew it was not a Bengali dish—our mother was the only one in the extended family who made it—but we weren’t really very interested in food provenance in those days. Many years later when I was in grad school in Los Angeles and finally a confident cook I asked my mother to send me the recipe. I too began to make it on special occasions. By now I had learned of the Parsi dish patra ni machhi and assumed this was basically the same dish except instead of steamed in banana leaves it was braised on the stove-top. But a few months ago I randomly described the dish to the Parsi food writer Meher Mirza and she—after consultation with her mother—declared it too different from the iconic patra ni macchi for her to use the same name for it. And so finally after more than 50 years on this planet—more than 40 of those eating this dish—I got around to asking my mother what was up with it.
This is what she told me: many years ago, all the way back when I was 4 or 5, we lived in an air force station (or base in American parlance) in southern Bengal. Our next door neighbours were Parsi and it was in their house that my mother ate the classic Parsi dish for the first time. She got the recipe from our neighbour but over time stopped using banana leaves—this because my father got transferred to northern Punjab where banana leaves (and pomfret) were not easy to hand. She had anyway as she puts it, “adjusted the recipe as usual as per my idea, mixing and matching”. So you changed it from ground coconut to coconut milk? I asked. She denied ever having used coconut milk. But the recipe you sent me had coconut milk, I protested. Can’t be, she said.
So I went back to the folder filled with the crumbling loose leaf pages on which she’d sent me recipes over the years. Sure enough her recipe called for desiccated coconut (the Parsi original uses fresh, I think). The coconut milk then had been my interpolation. This was probably due to the fact that in my grad student days it was much easier to open a can of coconut milk than to find coconut of any kind and grind it. So the dish I had come to think of as a pretty good replica of my mother’s take on a Parsi original turned out to be an adaptation of an adaptation. And talk of the unreliability of memory: I had neither remembered making the coconut milk substitution myself but had edited my memory to make this the version my mother had cooked for us in our childhood too.
By the way, over the years I have eaten properly made patra ni macchi in the homes of Parsi friends and at the venerable Britannia in Bombay. And I have to say it tastes…quite similar to this anyway. But I will not be so crass as to call this a Parsi dish, leave alone patra ni macchi—which it could not be given the absence of patra/leaves in this preparation. Flavour alone is not what defines a dish; form is very important too; as are seemingly minor yet crucial differences in texture etc. that may not be as palpable to people outside the community of origin of a dish as to those inside it. You can think of this instead as a second cousin of the Parsi dish or a first cousin twice removed (I can never remember what the difference is). However you think of it though I think you will find it to be very tasty.
- 6 fillets or steaks of any meaty white fish, roughly 1.5 lbs total (pomfret or pompano preferred)
- 1 cup thinly sliced onion
- The following ground together into a thick paste: 1 bunch dhania/cilantro; 3 large sprigs worth of mint leaves; fresh ginger root equivalent to about 1 tspn; 2 cloves garlic; just enough water to easily grind the rest.
- 2 tblspns white vinegar
- 1 pinch sugar
- A few grindings of black pepper
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 2-4 Thai chillies, slit
- 2-3 tblspns of grapeseed or avocado oil or other neutral oil
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a large pan that can hold all the fish in one layer and when it shimmers add the sliced onion.
- Saute the onion, stirring often, till beginning to brown.
- Add the green masala paste and saute till the oil just begins to separate.
- Add the fish and shake the pan gently to distribute the paste around it.
- Add the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper and shake the pan again gently to mix things around.
- Add the coconut milk and the slit green chillies, do the shaking routine again, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan and cook for about 10 minutes.
- Uncover the pan and let it simmer for another 3-5 minutes or so.
- Taste and adjust for salt.
- Serve with hot steamed rice.
- I have made this successfully with fillets of mahi mahi from Costco but really it’s pomfret or pompano you need. I typically use two large pompano cut into five pieces each. I reserve the heads and tails for fish fry of one kind or the other and use the remaining six pieces of belly and adjacent for this prep.
- You can adjust the proportions of the cilantro and mint but there should always be more cilantro than mint. Similarly, you can adjust the number of green chillies up or down. Or you can even grind them with the rest of the green masala paste.
- On occasion I’ve made it with two cups of coconut milk. I like that version too but prefer it with 1 cup.
- By the way there’s a whole other Bengali fish dish make with cilantro—dhone-paata maach—but my mother never made that. Maybe I should give that a try some time myself.
- And if you want to look at a more classic version of the original, here is my departed friend Sue Darlow’s annotation of the version in Niloufer Ichaporia King’s Parsi cookbook, My Bombay Kitchen [affiliate link]. As you’ll see, there’s no onions, ginger or garlic in that recipe but there are a lot more green chillies; and while it uses cumin seeds, my mother’s does not; and while Ichapouria King uses lime juice my mother uses white vinegar. At this point it is hard for me to tease apart how much of this plus/minus was via my mother and how much due to variation in her original Parsi source’s preparation. If anyone knows if onions/ginger/garlic/vinegar show up in Parsi versions too—or indeed if there are other Parsi variations from Ichapouria King’s recipe—please let me know.