Marvelous mackerel

Mackarel_1I can’t talk enough about the Bengali’s love of fish. Fish is more than a food item for them…it’s more like a philosophy. You can even take Rabindranath Tagore out of some Bengalis, but not fish (forgive me for saying this). I don’t blame them. What do you do when you have innumerable rivers running all over your state and then the Bay of Bengal as your southern border? You end up being a fish eating-fish dreaming-fish talking community. A weakness for large carp even led the Bengali Brahmins to trade their place in the rigid Puranic hierarchy of Hinduism for the right to eat fish.

Fish is such an important part of our life that it has became integrated into culture in ways totally separate from food. I was reading The Calcutta Kitchen by Udit Sorkhel and Simon Parks, where they list the many piscine axioms that have become commonplace in the Bengali language. For example, a person with a darker personality or nature would be called “gobhir jawler mach” or “deepwater fish”, and someone who is being very diplomatic would be called “dhori mach na chhui pani” or “can catch the fish without touching the water”. The newly married bride upon her first arrival at her in-laws house will face the  challenge of trying to grip a live a lyata  fish (Channa punctatus). As this fish is very slimy and slippery, the idiom is that if you succeed in capturing it, you will be able to run the household with a stable hand. I could go on, but you get the sense; Bengalis have an intimate relationship with fish. We came up with a zillion way to cook and eat them, but when it comes to the most favorite ones, it’s always mustard and fish cooked together.Anyone who is familiar with Bengal will know that the Bengali’s’ love for mustard is as strong as it is for fish and rice.

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Here’s a very simple recipe, the outcome  of which is disproportionately mouthwatering. It also makes a very quick weekday dinner. For very severely homesick Bengali, this may even be a poor man’s version of shorshe ilish. Although mackerel is less oily and tasty  than a good mature hilsa, the flesh is buttery and white and it’s a fine fish in it’s own right.

Recipe:

Mackerel steak: 5-6 pcs.

Brown mustard: 1 tbsp.

Poppy seeds (white): 1-2 tsp.

Green chili: 4-6 nos. (depending on how hot you want)

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Turmeric powder: ¼ tsp.

Salt to taste

  • Clean the fish well, drain and keep it aside. Use a microwave safe bowl with a lid.
  • Soak the mustard and the poppy seeds in lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes.
  • Grind the mustard and the poppy seeds with 2-3 green chillies to a smooth paste.
  • Add turmeric and salt to the paste and mix well.
  • Add the paste to the fish, add the mustard oil and coat the fish really well.
  • Throw in some slit green chili and cover the dish with a lid.
  • Microwave for 4 minutes, remove the lid and turn the fish pieces.
  • Microwave for 2-3 more minutes or until the fish is cooked through.

Do not add a lot of turmeric powder. It takes 7-8 minutes to cook the fish. If you add a lot of turmeric, it will give you a raw turmeric smell.

If your mustard paste is very thick in consistency, add a table spoon or so water to it, otherwise the fish will end up very dry.

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The recipe and the idea of cooking Mackerel in this way was shared by my dear friend Madhu.

Uchche chachchori/Bitter gourd with mustard paste

Bitter the better, no one said ever, except the Bengalis. Traditionally in a Bengali household, food will be served in separate bowls with five different types of food (pancha vyanjana) in them. The rice was placed on the metal platter (thala) and the bowls were arranged anticlockwise around the platter in the order the food was to be eaten. It started with something bitter, maybe uchhe bhaja (fried bitter gourds), neem-begun (neem leaves fried with eggplant) or some kind of bitter leafy vegetable. Then followed a daal (lentil soup), bhaja (fried vegetable like potato, ash gourd, eggplant etc.), vegetables in gravy, ghanto (a vegetable mishmash with or without fish), fish or meat and the last course was always a sweet or tangy chutney (made from either tomato, green mango, papaya or jolpai (Indian olives)). Separately, sweets were a must after every meal, be it mishti doi (sweet yogurt) or something made either at home or bought from the local moira (sweetmeat maker).

It’s very normal for children to hate anything bitter. But, I was a strange kid; I didn’t like fish or most of the vegetables but always liked bitter foods. Uchche (karela/bittergourd) was always my favorite, be it fried crisp, chachchori cooked with potato and mustard paste or just boiled and then mixed with boiled potatoes, mashed with green chilis, salt and mustard oil.

The bitter taste is an acquired taste, if you like it, you like it a lot but if you don’t, you’ll hate it…not many people fall in the middle category I assume. The bitterness is supposed to clear your palate (probably the reason behind serving it first during the meal) and has medicinal properties too. During old times, the kabiraj (ayurvedic doctor) would often prescribe bitter tasting food to cure many diseases. In fact Bengalis still eat neem-begun at the onset of boshonto (spring) as a preventative measure of chicken pox. One way or another, the Bengalis’ love for the bitter has never faded.

The recipe below is my mother’s and I love it. It’s very simple and needless to say that it’s tasty (at least to the bitter-loving people). I haven’t altered anything from her recipe including grinding the mustard-poppy seed on my shil-nora (traditional Bengali grinding stone).

Ingredients:

Bitter gourd: 3 med.

Potato: 2 med.

Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Dry red chili: 2 nos.

Pnach phoron: 1/2 tsp.

Mustard whole: 2 tbsp

Poppy seed: 1tsp (optional)

Salt to taste

Mustard oil/vegetable oil: 1 tbsp.

Water: 1/2 cup. or more if needed.

How to cook:

  • Soak the whole mustard and poppy seeds with water for 30 minutes.
  • Grind it to a fine/smooth paste with 2-3 green chilis.
  • Wash and cut the bitter gourds in 1 1/2” pieces. Do the same for the potatoes. I prefer not to peel potatoes for most of the times as I do not want the nutrition in the peel to go waste. If you like it, go ahead and peel them.
  • Heat up the oil (if you are using mustard oil, heat it up to smoking hot, reduce the temperature and then add the phoron. The mustard oil does add flavor to the dish but you can always use something else), add pnach phoron and two dry red chilis. Sauté them until they release a nice aroma.
  • Add the potato, sauté them for 5 minutes. They should be very lightly fried, not deeply fried.
  • Follows the bitter gourd. Add turmeric powder and sauté for another 5-8 minutes.
  • Add water and cover the pot with a lid.
  • Once the vegetables are halfway cooked, add salt and let them cook uncovered.
  • Add the mustard-poppy seed paste when the vegetable are cooked. Give them a good stir and turn off the heat.
  • Let the flavor intermix a little bit and then serve with plain rice.
  • Try not to overcook the vegetables. I cut the potatoes a little bigger than usual (for no reason), but it’s better if you can cut them a little smaller than mine. Mine worked fine but to me it looked like the potatoes were predominating the dish.