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