Machh : From Kitchen to Table

It’s that time of the year again. Pujo is over, the lights and music have subsided, and we Bengalis, with heavy hearts, are slowly returning to our daily routine. However, to keep some of the Bong spirit alive, we still have two instalments of the Machh series to deal with. Here’s Part 3…

Last time, we began our exploration of the spectrum of Bengali fish dishes, looking at mostly fried and steamed fish dishes, before concluding with a brief overview of the basic fish curry template, using a basic machher jhol as our example. This time, we will explore the entire spectrum of fish curries, and once again, we begin with the jhol. We talked about the basic jhol last time, and it’s now time to take things further.

The whole spices can range from a single option like kalojeere or panchforon to a multitude, and the add-ons can be anything you fancy, from aloo (potato) to begun (eggplant), from phulkopi (cauliflower) to daal er bori (sundried lentil dumplings), from kachkola (raw plantain) to potol (pointed gourd). The simple machh er jhol is a lesson in simplicity, ideal for the summertime. Catfish like magur and shingi are ideal for light curries, with the dyspeptic Pyalaram from Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Tenida eating “potol diye shingi machh er jhol” on an almost regular basis.

Shingi machh er jhol (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

Of course, if it’s summer, you could utilize the best of seasonal ingredients to create other amazing curries. We’ve already talked about adding gondhoraj to a paturi, whose fresh zing is the perfect foil to the sharp mustard. You could also use tamarind, and of course, raw mango, as in the mourola machh er ombol we’ve already mentioned in our Taste of Bengal article. Another great example is this recipe for Aam Shol by Nola, the perfect dish for a hot summer afternoon, which balances the tang of the mango with the heat of mustard and the earthiness of cumin to create a beautifully complex sauce. Check out the recipe link below.

The tel jhol is a bit richer, with a greater proportion of oil, common examples being jhals made using ilish, pabda and koi. As the name suggests, the machh er jhal is more pungent and heavy-handed with spices. The chorchori, as we’ve already mentioned, is a dry, spicy preparation, without much sauce or gravy to it. Yet another way of introducing richness involves the addition of yoghurt, making a rich, hearty sauce, ideal for meaty chunks of rui and katla. Take the doi machh a few steps further and you arrive at a classic Mughal import into Bengali cuisine.

Pabda tel jhol (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

Unlike the other Mughlai culinary import, korma, which is oil-based and mostly made with meat, the kalia is water or milk based and like the doi machh, is perfect for rui and katla. Compared to a basic machh er jhol, the ingredient list is much longer, with a lot more spices, along with ingredients like onion, ginger, tomatoes, and yoghurt, making it a decadent dish, often served at weddings.

If the Mughals gave the kalia, the Malays gave us the Malaikari, a dish named not after the main ingredient but its Southeast Asian roots. Chingri malaikari pairs fresh prawns that pop against the velvety background of a sweetish coconut-milk based sauce reminiscent of Thai curries. A coconut milk and mustard based sauce adds a slight kick, and is the basis for daab chingri, a celebratory dish usually served inside a green coconut.

Chingri Malaikari (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

The dolma boasts of Armenian origins, and involves coring a vegetable, stuffing it with a spicy fish mixture and dunking it into a gravy While the most popular example is the potol, it can be made with other veggies like korola (bitter gourd). Chitol machh er muithha is another classic made using minced fish. It involves making what is essentially a fish sausage. Fish scraped off the bony gada is mixed with flavoured, made into logs and cooked in water, then cut into small chunks and fried, before dunking in a jhol.

Our fish dish is also minced takes us into the fascinating world of fermentation. Shutki machh is a polarizing ingredient, which involves drying loita or Bombay duck until it ferments and develops a strong odour and flavour. It is not for the faint hearted, but once you get past the smell, the flavour is excellent. Minced shutki can be fried with aromatics into a spicy chorchori. Heavy with onion, garlic and chillies, it is ideal for the beginner as the flavour of the fish is muted by the spices. You could keep the chunks bigger if you’re up for a challenge. It is an acquired taste, but devotees swear by it.

Shutki bata (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

It is time to take our conversation from the kitchen to the table. When a whole fish is brought into the household, different cuts are traditionally served to different members of the family. While the eldest son gets the prized peti, the daughter has to settle for the bonier gada, while the matriarch is left with the piece that nobody wants, usually the lyaja. The entire system reeks of misogyny and patriarchy. Thankfully, a lot of this is a relic of the past, although it may still be seen in certain orthodox joint families.

Let’s fast forward to the modern world, and recategorize the dishes we’ve seen so far from a gastronomic viewpoint rather than a strictly culinary one. Let’s start simple. Machh bhaja and rice with a little bit of butter and ghee is the ultimate comfort food for most Bengalis, be it the humble mourola or the magestic ilish. A piece of katla bhaja or topshe fry is the perfect accompaniment to khichuri as well. And nothing shouts comfort food more than the simple combination of bhaat and machh er jhol. A light machh er jhol with bori , begun or phulkopi the panacea for all ailments in the Bengali household.

Ilish machh bhaja (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

When it comes to more elaborate, multi-course meals, the fish can make its way into most of the courses. Even before the mains hit the table, it sneakily slips into the veggie dishes, from the tiny pieces of fried shrimp in a mocha chingri or lau chingri to pieces of machh er muro which lends its own unmistakable touch to a bhaja moong dal. Other dishes like the kochupata chingri express a wonderful symbiosis between vegetable and fish, each enhancing the other to create a sum greater than its parts.

It is interesting how fish is exempted from rigorous religious restriction, with fish being allowable in the motshyomukhi of a Bengali sraddho bari, a place where any other meat is strictly banned. When it comes to a more celebratory biyebari though, the reins are taken off, and the fish metaphorically swims free. You have decadent bhetki paturi, doi katla, and if you’re very lucky, some shorshe ilish. While most fish dishes pair best with rice, the kaalia is an exception. While it is great with rice, the rich sauce pairs best with a slightly sweet polao, and can give any meat dish a run for its money.

Katla kalia (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

And if you thought that the fish parade concludes with the mains, you’d be woefully mistaken. You could bring the meal to a satisfying conclusion with a tangy ombol made with mourola machh and kancha aam, a summertime delicacy. If you want to keep the fish theme going, you could finish with a sandesh shaped like fish or, more commonly, a piece of ilish peti sandesh. Omnipresent indeed. Fish is so integral to our cuisine and culture, it is scary imagining what we would do without it.

Subho Bijoya to all readers of the Gourmet Glutton!

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