The marriage of British fish and Indian flavours is one of the best there is,” says Atul Kochhar, one of the world’s leading Indian chefs and food writers. And, to prove his point, he has written Fish, Indian Style, a collection of at least 100 simple as well as experimental recipes. Whiting Goujons with Onion Raita, Crayfish Samosas and Parathas Stuffed with Ginger-spiked Crab will inspire you to brave the fish market.
And when you get to cooking the fish, remember his tip: “Use spices the same way as salt and pepper in your cooking.
Taste as you go along, and adjust the seasoning.” Kochhar, who has a restaurant called Benares in London, spoke to Lounge about ways of eating fish, the surprises that come with making fish idli, and responsible fish cooking. Edited excerpts:
Down to basics: Kochhar says spices shouldn’t overwhelm the fish.
What are your earliest memories of fish?
My family comes from Punjab, but I was brought up in Jamshedpur, where fish is loved. From where I was coming, the only thing my family knew to do with fish was either deep fry it or make kebabs. It’s from people I grew up with—the Bengalis, Oriyas, Parsis and Assamese—that I learnt how to bake, roast, steam and poach fish. I was also fortunate in that my dad, who ran a catering business, was a great cook.
Macher jhol (a watery fish curry), which our neighbour used to cook, is the first fish preparation that I had and it’s one of my favourites till today.
In your book you say that Indians don’t make the most of their seafood. Why so?
A beautiful coastline surrounds India, and we land great fish on our ports but we don’t know what to do with it and end up exporting most of it. Indian diet primarily consists of vegetables and meat, even though seafood is so healthy. We get only the basics in our market and the best—say, the shark—is sold to Europe. As far as cooking is concerned, we tend to kill the flavour of fish and seafood by over-spicing. For fish curry, instead of throwing the fish in the sauce, I would pan-fry it, steam it or roast it and then serve it over the sauce.
What are the simple rules to buying good fish?
Ensure that the gills are bright red in colour, the eyes are bright, the tail is not stiff and the scales are attached to the fish. The smell should be a pleasant ocean or river small as opposed to a strong odour of ammonia.
What are your five favourite fish and the best methods of cooking them?
First would be the king mackerel, which is best when pan-fried. It’s very common in India but unfortunately I don’t get it in the UK and crave for it here. I love the hilsa from Kolkata in its macher jhol form. Then there’s Sear, which can take the heat of tandoor or barbeque easily and bhetki, which is versatile and can take anything—poaching, steaming, baking, pan frying or roasting. My favourite in the UK is John Dori, a robust fish that is best either roasted, pan fried or deep-fried.
Your book has quirky recipes such as fish idli, fish pizza and fish samosa. How do fish lovers respond to them?
People have loved these dishes, especially the idli that takes everyone by surprise. Idli is nothing but a mixture of rice, steamed. There’s no reason you can’t make a mixture of fish and steam it. I’ve flavoured it with south Indian spices, and it works well with spicy coconut chutney. Indians love to bring a new twist to different cuisines. A pizza in Mumbai is a Mumbai pizza, far away from the real thing (laughs). The fish pizza is definitely inspired by Mumbai.
Indian fish eaters are divided according to salt-water fish and river fish. Which do you prefer?
I love both, but the wealth of seafood comes from the ocean, not the river.
Which culture understands fish the best?
I think the Spaniards and Italians make the most of seafood. They can do anything with fish.
Throughout the book, you have spoken about responsible fish cooking.
I’m not working purely for the cause of preserving endangered fish species, but I work with the consciousness that all my actions will affect the future. The hilsa in India is endangered. We need to come up with farms to breed and preserve hilsa, and that is now achievable. Ten years ago, cod farming was unthinkable in UK and now we have so many cod farms and the supply is back.
Pollack Idli with Tomato, Coriander and Peanut Chutney
600g pollack fillet (or red snapper), skinned and pin bones removed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
5 curry leaves, chopped
1 tsp finely chopped ginger
¼ tsp finely chopped green chilli
1 tbsp roasted chana dal (optional)
1 egg white
1 tbsp single cream
A few fried curry leaves to garnish
For the tomato, coriander and peanut chutney
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
8-9 curry leaves
50g unsalted peanuts, crushed
1 onion, chopped
½ tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
300g tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
First make the chutney. Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves and sauté until they pop. Add the crushed peanuts and onion and sauté till the onion is translucent. Stir in the red chilli powder, coriander and turmeric, then add the tomatoes. Cook over medium flame for 10-12 minutes until slightly thick. Stir in the lemon juice, sugar and some salt and cook for a 3-4 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To make the idli, put the pollack fillet in a food processor and pulse until it becomes a smooth paste. Heat the oil in a small pan, add the mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger, green chilli and chana dal and sauté over a medium flame until the spices begin to crackle. Add this mixture to the fish, together with the egg white and cream.
Mix well and season with salt. Shape the mixture into cakes about 5cm in diameter. Arrange them in a steamer lined with banana leaves and steam for 5-7 minutes, until cooked. Serve the fish cakes with the chutney, garnished with a few fried curry leaves.
From Fish, Indian Style, Absolute Press: 224 pages, $35 (Rs1,600).