For the love of fish

For the love of fish

Fish is a universal favourite in the country. Be it spicy curries, crispy fillets, or deep-fried treats, fish renders itself beautifully to everything, writes Amrita Besra

Bengali Fish Curry, Doi Maach

Thronging the waters of Bay of Bengal is a mélange of fishes. Fish spawn among finely leaved aquatic plants, and of course, you get to see white  sails of numerous fishermen’s boats that pass by at the Mohona estuary where River Champa flows into the sea,” said an elderly lady who was doling out seaside meals of delicately spiced maach alu jhol, full of flavour, from her small makeshift beach kitchen located at Digha, Midnapore, West Bengal.

For a fish aficionado like me, there’s surely nothing nicer than this freshly cooked, piping hot Bengali fish and potatoes curry, rather maach alu jhol, served along with some aromatic gobindo bhog rice (a popular Bengali variety of short-grained rice) for a summer afternoon lunch.

Slow-cooked stew from Kerala

Take, for instance, the case of matthi curry prepared in the coastal area of Cochin, Kerala. As small river fishes like the matthi (or sardines) were slow-cooked with mustard seeds, ground spices like fenugreek seeds, ginger, turmeric, curry leaves and coconut oil in the mann chatti (traditional clay pot) placed over a gentle flame, I was reminded of the time when this delightful fish curry was a special treat for the T’ang dynasty Chinese silk merchants and traders arriving at the Malabar Coast.

Then, a brief walk through the pages of history took me to Chilika Lake located on the eastern coast of Odisha. In fact, as a fisherman cast his net over the Chilika Lake waters from his traditional kosala danga (long bamboo shaft with salupa masts) — generally used for fishing — I was reminded of the time when Chilika Lake was a prime maritime coastal harbour for fish trade during the time of the Kalinga Dynasty, way back in the sixth century. Interestingly, for fish dishes with a pungent mustardy taste like machcha besara, as per tradition, freshwater fishes like rohi (a type of carp fish) are cooked with dried mango powder, mustard seeds along with dry spices.

Kerala fish curry
Kerala fish curry

A simple fish curry from Bengal

As a matter of fact, a variety of white-scaled freshwater fishes like katla, rohu, puti, or even the famous ilish or hilsha, smeared with some turmeric, slit green chillies, salt, and then cooked with sil-bata masala (or freshly ground whole spices using traditional grinding stone) was a popular dish for the aristocratic Bengali zamindars. It’s not just the case of this quintessential Bengali maach alu jhol. Other distinct varieties of freshwater fishes — whether grilled, crisply fried, stewed, steamed or curried to a red-hot concoction sauce — popular in the river-side and coastal areas during the past are gradually becoming the most sought-after in the recent times.

A prawn delight from Goa

Then, moving over to Goa’s coastal region of Mapusa, I came across the spicy, peppery prawn balchao that was popular during the time of Portuguese colonisation of Goa in the 15th century. Traditionally, for this dish, prawns or local fish fillets are cooked in a spicy tomato-chilli sauce along with coconut vinegar.

Fish with radish from Kashmir

Next, there’s the Kashmiri muji gaad, a fish curry cooked along with radish. According to historical sources, way back in 1898, for muji gaad, fishes like the trout was a preferred ingredient. Even though times have changed now, for bringing out all the flavours of muji gaad, cooking techniques and even ingredients have remained the same. However, instead of trout, freshwater fishes like katla is used and cooked along with radish in a delicate whole spices paste of saunf (fennel seeds), ajwain (bishop’s weed), shahi jeera (black cumin seeds), black and green cardamoms as well as cinnamon sticks.

Fried fish from Amritsar

As for a tangy and crispy fried fish dish, there is the lip-smacking Amritsari fish — a dish which was favoured by Mughal emperors like Akbar. As per tradition, for this dish, sweet river fish fillets are marinated with dried spices like pomegranate and caraway seeds, red chillies, turmeric and coriander. They are then dipped in a batter of rice and chickpea flour, and finally fried to a crispy, golden brown.