Fish cooked in a spicy sauce, flavored with nigella seeds, hot green peppers and cooked in mustard oil is a recipe very close to my heart. Memories churn, my heart and body warm up, images slide by and the taste lingers as I savor the peppery fish curry with some hot steamed rice on this chilly winter afternoon.
West Bengal - a coastal state on the Eastern regions of India is abundantly endowed with a lot of greens, tea gardens (which produces the world famous Darjeeling Tea), paddy fields and meandering rivers. Cuisine of the state works with the nature as the kitchen cooks up innumerable vegetable dishes, lentils cooked with different spices and most importantly the fresh water fishes which are all served in a single meal usually with steamed white rice; the meal finally ends on a sweet note with chutney, mishti doi (Sweet Yogurt) or some regional sweet dish. In short Fish and rice form the principal part of the the cuisine of Bengal, the other things being just the sides.
Some of the most famous fish curries are Sorshe Mach (Fish in mustard sauce), Machher jhol (Fish in a thin light stew), Machher jhal (Fish in Spicy Sauce), Doi machh (Fish in Yogurt Sauce) and Chingri Machher Malaikari (Shrimp cooked with coconut and coconut cream). The fishermen caught fishes in the river at dawn. The river meandered only a few minutes away from our home. The fishes still in the net were brought to our doorstep for sale at the early hours of the morning. I remember the ritual of cleaning, scaling and cutting the fishes. The food was prepared with great care in the big kitchen of the joint family; it was filled with the aroma of the unique spices (the nigella/onion seeds being one of them) and the mustard oil. Our cook, my great grandma, my grandma, ma and my aunts worked in the kitchen taking turns and working together. I remember the iron kadais (woks) in which most of the food used to be cooked.
The mustard oil, spices and the fish cooked in the iron kadai had a very distinctive aroma hard to reproduce if any one of the mentioned is to be missing. Today I made the fish in the iron kadai the same way it used to be done; traditionally the fish used for this curry are not fillets but fresh fish with bones, and the fishes are deep fried in oil. I have used fillets here as they are easily available and the fillets have been sauted instead of deep frying for obvious health reasons.
Machher Jhal/Fish in Spicy Sauce
- 2 Fillets of Boneless Firm White Fish ( I have used Tilapia)
- 1/2 Large Onion, peeled and sliced
- 2 Vine Ripe Tomatoes, grated
- 4-5 Fresh Green Hot Chili Pepper
- 1/2 Teaspoon Red Chili Powder/Cayenne Pepper/Paprika for less heat
- 3/4 Inch of Fresh Ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 Teaspoon Kalo Jeera/Kalonji/Nigella Seeds
- 2 Tablespoons Mustard Oil
- 1 Teaspoon of Turmeric powder
Sauteing the Fish:
Wash fish, at room temperature, with cold water. Drain and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut each fillet into 2 pieces, You will have 4 fillets.
Place pieces on a single layer on a tray; Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and 1/2 Teaspoon of salt over fish pieces. (Reserve remaining turmeric for curry/sauce.) Rub in the salt and turmeric mixture on both sides of the fish fillets. Let it marinate for about 15 minutes.
Heat about 3/4 Tablespoon of oil in a pan at medium heat. The oil needs to be sizzling hot. (If oil is not hot enough the fish might break or stick to the pan.)
Slide fish pieces carefully into hot oil, in a single layer placing them flat. Sauté fish to a light brown on both sides, while flipping them over only once. Do not fry to a dark brown, or they will become stiff and chewy. Using a spatula, remove the fishes to a plate. Set aside.
Making the Sauce/Curry:
Heat the rest of the oil in a pan. Add the Nigella/Kalonji seeds and the Green Hot Peppers to the oil. When they sizzle, add the onion in the oil and fry for 2 – 3 minutes till they get translucent. Keep heat at medium. Add red pepper powder and remaining turmeric, and stir for 1-2 minutes.
Stir in the tomato and the ginger, and continue to cook till the mixture at low heat is reduced to a mush.
Pour in about 1 cup water, return fish to pan and place them in a single layer, and stir in gently. Cover the pan, turn down heat and let simmer for about 8 – 10 minutes, and then turn off heat.
Garnish with fresh cilantro/coriander over fish.
Serve hot over plain rice.
One of my favorite recipes from my childhood, mingled with some special memories of eating all together in one long dining table. We kids chirped, voices and the tinker floated down from the open kitchen door, while my dad helped me pick out the bones of the fishes, and ma arranged the rice on my plate along with the other sides ; the hot steam of the rice touched my face. I close my eyes now, inhale the aroma from the steaming fish and rice and I am there back home. Sending the Fish Curry to HOTM #31 – Retro Dishes, hosted by Ilva of Lucullian Delights.