It is an understatement to say that fish is an integral portion of Bengali cuisine. It is hard to imagine Bengali food without fish and rice. The fertile delta of the Ganges means that there is never a dearth of freshwater fish, and we Bongs are experts at making the best of it. However, the fish has transcended the boundaries of Bengali cooking to become a symbol and integral part of our very culture: a whole ilish or rui is sent from the groom’s family to the bride’s during a Bengali wedding as a tattwa gift.
In this very special three-parter, we will explore fish in all its glory, from the buying and prepping to the cooking and eating. To capture the essence of the cultural aspect of fish, I will be pairing this series with recipes from a new and upcoming YouTube cooking channel called Nola. The brainchild of Proteeti Bandyopadhyay and Swagata Chandra, their videos are full of nostalgic anecdotes, with impeccable camerawork and the perfect music choice. It captures Bengali culture at its very best, each and every time. More on that later.
While most of Bengal’s fish like rui (rohu) and katla (carp) come from the freshwater of the Ganges, there are exceptions. Ilish (hilsa) is an anadromous fish; it lives in the sea and come to the river to breed, like salmon in the West. Bhetki (barramundi) on the other hand, is catadromous: it swims downstream to the river to the estuary to spawn. The pomfret is a popular choice among the saltwater fish, delicious when fried in oil as is or with a spice paste, as is the Bombay duck or loita, which yields a much more polarizing product, as we will see later.
The fish market is a Mecca for Bengalis, whose cacophony and fishy stench is likely to put off the novice. From the tiny mourola to the massive rui, the gleaming array of silver attracts the customers, who take their pick, before the fishmonger preps it, gutting and scaling the fish before cutting it up deftly yet menacingly with clean sweeps through the ansh boti, a sort of vertical scythe stabilized by the foot. After an episode of haggling, the barter is made, and the customers walks away with the prized spoils.
“Sunday morning bazaar for Mr. Mukherjee is as important as a round of golf at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. He examines the gills of Calcutta’s fish of fishes, bhetki, or he lifts a tiger prawn from its bed of crushed ice to verify if the crustacean can hold up its head, a sign of freshness. The deal is clinched. The purchase safe in a green plastic bag is put into a portable ice box in the boot of his little white Maruti. In a few hours the prawns reappear in coconut milk as badga chingrir malai curry. The seasoned shopper waits for the greenhorn to move off before settles down to haggle over hilsa, strikes a better bargain and leaves with the pick of the catch peeping out of a hole of his well-worn shopping bag.”
Minakshie Dasgupta, The Calcutta Cookbook.
The fishmongers are deft at their job, decapitating the fish with a menacing swoop through the ansh boti before, scaling and skilfully preparing the fish into cuts as requested by the customers. Tiny fish like mourola are sold as is, while small ones like pabda and parshe are usually gutted, cleaned and then sold whole. A medium sized ilish is divided into the head or muro, and tail or lyaja, with the rest cut into rounds across the body. For larger fish like rui and katla, the main body is divided into the peti (literally “belly”) in the front and the gada at the back, which are then portioned into smaller pieces.
The term peti has two similar but slightly different meanings. In the context of smaller fish like ilish which is simply cut into rounds, peti refers to the slices in the middle, near the abdomen, which houses the prized roe. For katla, it refers to the part in front of the spine, as opposed to gada which lies behind it. Which is why an ilish peti looks very different from a katla peti. The former includes the entire cross section, while the latter includes just a quarter of it.
Cuts like lyaja, gada and peti are often loosely referred to as curry cuts, and is the most familiar cut of fish used in Bengali households, be it for a bhaja or a jhol. People have strong personal preferences when it comes to cuts, as is evident in any old-school nemontonno feast (more on the biyebari feast here), with kids opting for the easy to eat peti, with connoisseurs specifically requesting for the bony but far tastier lyaja.
However, it is not just about the prized cuts. Bengalis treat the fish with the respect it deserves, adopting a full-on nose to tail eating approach (more on nose to tail eating here). Ilish gills are also fried up along with the head for addition to dals. Many people love eating the potka or swim bladder. And while the Westerners dump the fish bones into a stock pot, we cook it up into a dry, spicy kata chorchori, perfect with rice. The most famous example of nose to tail eating however, is the almighty muro or fish head.
While Westerners cringe at the sight of a fish head, we absolutely relish eating fried fish head, scouring every nook and cranny for nuggets of meat hiding among the bones. Fried pieces of fish head are an excellent addition to any dish and add a celebratory flair to humble vegetarian dishes like moong dal and lau er torkari. And then of course, there is muri ghonto, a dish which showcases the muro in all its glory. Check out Nola’s recipe for muri ghonto, seasoned with anecdotes and music.
With the shopping and prepping sorted, it is time to move on to the actual cooking. In Part 2, we begin our exploration of the wide spectrum of classic fish dishes in Bengali cuisine.