Green Masala Fish


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. Continue reading

Sour Fish Curry with Coconut Milk and Kokum


I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that pompano is one of our very favourite fish in the US. Perhaps because it’s not a fish that lends itself to being sold in fillet form, it’s not available in mainstream grocery stores—not that I’ve seen anyway. But if you have Vietnamese or other stores catering to Southeast Asian customers in your area chances are good that you will find frozen or thawed pompano there. Frozen is, of course, better as that way you won’t need to cook it up right away—unless you live right by where pompano is brought to shore it’s coming to your store frozen so if you buy it thawed and bung it in your freezer when you get home you’ll be freezing and then thawing it a second time. So if it’s not frozen when you buy it I recommend cooking it up the same day or the next. And I highly recommend this recipe when you do. Don’t have pompano? Fillets of a mild white fish such as mahi mahi or even orange roughy will do. In a pinch, so will salmon. If you have access to pomfret that would work just as well in place of the pompano. Continue reading

Salmon, Two Ways


I have for you two recipes for salmon or rather two recipes in one. The second is the first plus one ingredient and a couple of very minor time adjustments. Both are centered on flavours from southwestern coastal Indian fish preparations, sometimes involving rawas or Indian salmon. These kinds of preps are pretty much the only Indian fish dishes in which I think American salmon works very well—but that may just be me.

This is not, however, a traditional preparation. It does not follow any particular regional recipe but instead seeks to approximate vague taste memories of dishes eaten in friends’ homes and in restaurants. There are two ingredients that are certainly not traditionally Indian in any way: balsamic vinegar and Sichuan peppercorn. But both work well here, the balsamic playing a role similar to tamarind and the Sichuan peppercorn doing the work that its South Indian relative tirphal might otherwise do. Despite the ersatz nature of these recipes and two unorthodox ingredients the results are excellent and I recommend both dishes to you highly. Continue reading

Fish Curry with Coconut Milk


I think I’ve mentioned before that my sister and my favourite fish growing up was white pomfret. This is not a very Bengali thing, pomfret being a sea fish and Bengalis being of the river fish persuasion. But we grew up outside Bengal and particularly loved the quasi-Parsi green masala pomfret my mother made for us as a treat. When I moved to the US I thought my pomfret life was over. And then I discovered it in the large East Asian markets in Los Angeles and again later in Denver. I’ve not yet encountered it in East Asian markets in the Twin Cities—though there are many I have not yet been to—except in the freezers of Indian stores (but I no longer buy frozen fish from India). However, I don’t really miss it since we did find a fish in East Asian markets in Minnesota that is very similar to pomfret: pompano. I cook it in all the ways I cook pomfret: lightly coated in haldi/turmeric and salt and fried to a crisp; fried with onions; made a la my mother’s quasi-Parsi green masala recipe; and most often in this curry inspired by various southwestern coastal preps I’ve had. This is not a traditional recipe—though for all I know I have more or less approximated one by following taste memory. It is very tasty though: best with pompano or pomfret if you can find them, but also excellent with any meaty white fish. As a bonus, our kids love it too. Give it a go; you probably will like it a lot too (I’ve learned not to promise love). Continue reading

Fish Curry with Vinegar


As I’ve noted before, I’m not a big fan of salmon in Bengali fish preparations. Its flavour is a bit too strong in my opinion—or maybe it’s just too unfamiliar for me in those flavour contexts. I have far less cognitive dissonance using it in preparations that come out of the broad South Indian palette, however, especially with some coconut milk in the mix. This recipe does not use coconut milk (though you could add some for a variation) but salmon works very well here too.

This is also a recipe that comes together very easily. There’s a bit of a backlash these days online against “ethnic” recipes being presented as simple and so forth in the US. I’m sympathetic to the impulse there: the simplification of complex dishes is rarely a good idea to begin with and when applied to dishes from cuisines outside the mainstream it can also signal a refusal to take those cuisines seriously. That said, working Indians also make dishes that are optimized for simplicity—whether traditional or contemporary—and this one is a fish curry I can pull together in 30 minutes after getting home in the evening after a faculty meeting. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity. Continue reading

Maachher Jhol


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. Continue reading

Red Masala Fish


I’ve written before about how I came to start cooking with pompano as a substitute for white pomfret, the somewhat un-Bengali fish my sister and I have loved since our childhood. Pomfret is actually available quite easily now in freezers in Indian groceries in the US. However, as I’ve also said before, I stopped buying frozen Indian fish a while ago, having grown increasingly dubious about the ecological cost of feeding the nostalgia of the diaspora. Luckily, pompano, easily found in Southeast Asian stores in the Twin Cities, is very similar. Like pomfret it has firm but mild and sweet flesh which goes really well in spicy and non-spicy curries alike, and it’s also very good simply marinated and fried. I assume it comes to the local markets from Florida—and given the affordable cost I’d assume it’s probably farmed. At Shuang Hur on University Avenue in St. Paul you can even have the fishmongers clean and cut it for you. I prefer to do that myself at home so as to cut it exactly how I want it. Continue reading

Hot and Sour Fish Curry


Here is a variation on a dish I make on the regular but which I have not gotten around to posting a recipe of yet. Why do I say “a variation on a dish I make on the regular”? Well, because that’s what home cooking is, or at least what it is to me. I rarely measure ingredients, add more or less (or none) of some things on different occasions, and generally improvize each dish each time I make it. In that sense the recipes I post on the blog are lies or at least not accurate representations of how I actually cook. Recipes suggest exactness but I’m not a very exact person. A recipe I think should be treated as a general roadmap: you don’t want to deviate so far from it that you end up somewhere completely different but you don’t need to have it dictate every stop along the way either.  At least you don’t want it to dictate one fixed route for every destination. Continue reading

Steamed Fish in Spicy Red Curry


It has been a long time since my last recipe post—almost exactly six months in fact. I imagine you have been subsisting in the interim on water and stale bread, hoping each day that I would bring you something new, never letting disappointment crush you entirely. Good news! Your wait is at an end! Here is a recipe for a very tasty fish dish and you can make it today as long as you have banana leaves on hand. What’s that? You don’t have banana leaves on hand? I don’t know why I bother with you bastard people. Well, I suppose you could get by with parchment paper, or perhaps even foil; but if you have an East Asian market somewhere in your vicinity you should stop reading now and go get some banana leaves and come back and find out what to do with them. And, oh yes, get some fresh fish fillets as well. Continue reading

“Steamed” Red Snapper with Ginger and Soy Sauce


Before lunch at Ichiddo Ramen last week we popped into Shuang Hur—the large East Asian market a couple of blocks away on University Avenue in St. Paul. We stop in there from time to time, mostly in search of whole fish that aren’t available in mainstream American markets—think anything with heads still attached—and, in particular, mackerel. On this occasion, however, it was some very fresh-looking whole red snappers that caught my eye. I picked the smallest one they had (still pretty large), had them pack it in a bag of ice and headed off to lunch (they also had some Indian mackerel, and I picked up a couple of pounds of those too). Two days later I cooked it for lunch, improvizing my way towards a dish we really enjoy at Grand Szechuan. The result was not identical but it was very good. And it’s very easy too.  Continue reading

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). Continue reading

Tuna Ceviche with Avocado and Tomato

Tuna Ceviche with Avocado and Tomato
This has been a very hot and humid week in southern Minnesota. And I spent altogether too much of it making vast amounts of tomato sauce to freeze for the winter (eating seasonally is for people in more temperate climes). So when the weekend rolled around the last thing I wanted to do was to be standing over a stove. Therefore our lunch today was both raw and cold. Last night I made gazpacho from Rohan Daft’s criminally under-appreciated Menu Del Dia and put it into the fridge and this afternoon I improvized a batch of tuna ceviche. I am confident that all those who had absolutely no interest in my last recipe involving raw tuna will be all over this one. Once again, I used frozen ahi tuna purchased from Costco. Some of my friends are a little alarmed by my eating this tuna raw, but I live on the edge*. Continue reading

Tuna Poke with Heirloom Tomatoes (and Watermelon)

Tuna Poke
As my long-suffering friends on Facebook are all too aware, I am a little obsessed with tomatoes. I have a small vegetable garden and from mid-July on all I do is post pictures of tomatoes. It’s not that I’m an accomplished gardener: tomatoes, peppers and herbs are pretty much all I can grow. Tomatoes are easy. And they’re particularly easy when you grow as many as I do: I neglect them terribly but get a good yield most summers from volume alone (and I have a theory that my neglect pushes each plant to put all its got into the smaller than would be normal output it manages due to my lack of feeding, watering and weeding). Tomatoes become a major part of our diet in August and September: we eat them as caprese, as salsa, as gazpacho, as raw and cooked tomato sauces, as oven-dried tomatoes, and I can and freeze a lot of sauce and roasted tomatoes too. This summer, however, I’ve begun to put them into tuna poke, which is yet another easy and great summer “salad”. Continue reading

Meen Mapas (Kerala-style Fish Curry)

Meen Mapas
Malayali food is one of my very favourite cuisines and is one of the things I miss most about living in India. I don’t mean to suggest that I grew up eating Malayali food (Kerala is the state, the people, culture and food are Malayali; the language is Malayalam). Indeed, given how intensely regional Indian cultural identity is, and also how relatively recently it is that restaurants specializing in something other than the local cuisine, “Mughlai” cuisine and Indian-Chinese cuisine have begun to pop up in the major Indian metros, I didn’t really have too much of an opportunity to eat it. In fact, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I was really introduced to Malayali food. This happened at Malabar, a restaurant in Hauz Khas in Delhi that I would eat at often with friends from work. I left for the US shortly thereafter and on visits home seeking out Malayali food was a major highlight (though then it was to the Coconut Grove in the Ashok Yatri Niwas hotel that we’d go—see here for a brief account of a scandalous crime that resulted in the shutting down of the Ashok Yatri Niwas). These days there are lots of places to eat Malayali and other non-idli-dosa-sambhar South Indian foods in Delhi, but in the early ’90s there really weren’t and so there’s doubtless some element of exoticism in my attachment to Malayali food.

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Shorshe-bata Maach/Fish in Mustard Paste (Indian Home Cooking Week 2)

A version with mahi-mahi.

A version with mahi-mahi.

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.)

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Masala Salmon (Indian Home Cooking Week 1)

Masala Salmon
After some dal and pumpkin it’s time to get non-veg with Indian Home Cooking Week.

I always go on about the regionality of Indian cuisine but this salmon recipe is not regionally specific at all. It uses combinations of ingredients and flavours that might be very loosely dubbed southwestern Indian but it’s not from any particular place. It’s a recipe I improvise anew each time I make it, and on this occasion I’m even improvising the chief mode of cooking—roasting—for the first time. Usually, I do this as a braise. I generally advise against cooking anything for the first time if there’s an audience involved, but this actually came out rather well and so here it is.

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