If you are a Bengali, it might be a good idea to stop reading now.
If you are a Bengali and are still reading, you are either (a) bored (b) curious or (c) liberal—enough to hear some upending of your traditions by a Konkani boy, who in turn had to abandon some grandmotherly advice in telling you what I am about to.
Back in the 1970s when life was gentler, and children thought nothing of sharing their room with their grandmother, as my brother and I did, she often frowned upon our violations of certain Konkan culinary traditions.
Prime among these infringements was our penchant for pouring a dollop of yogurt over fiery Goan fish curry. A small, strong woman who had given birth to 10 children over 24 years, my grandmother was illiterate, but she was well educated in her native wisdom and culinary traditions. In Goa, she said, no one ever ate fish with yogurt. “It doesn’t go,” was my grandmother’s obstinate response. “You develop white spots.” That’s vitiligo, said my mother, adding quickly that Goans would be “scandalized” if they knew of my attempts to cook fish with dahi (yogurt), Bengali style.
As you can see, when it comes to yogurt, Konkani and Bengali fish traditions may have evolved from different planets. I must confess that I know little about Bengali food, except that I like it—well, most of it. This fascination for freshwater fish and the overwhelming addiction to mustard escapes me. What I have loved over the years is—my grandmother must be rolling in her grave as I say this—doi maach, or yogurt fish.
I also know it’s a healthier way to have fish than the typical Konkan pomfret swimming in coconut milk (though if pushed to choose, I would say, Go Goa!).
I got started with doi maach thanks to generous contributions from readers on my blog earlier this year.
The first contribution came from my colleague Debjyoti Chakraborty, who explained that there are, of course, many variations of doi maach, divided, as many Bengali recipes are, into an “east” (the region that is now Bangladesh) and “west” (now West Bengal). Broadly speaking, he said, East Bengali recipes tend to enhance the fishy flavour of fish, while the ones from the West like to play up the flavour and aroma of spices. The East Bengal version of any fish curry is usually hot and the West Bengalis can’t help sprinkling a spoonful of sugar over almost everything.
One of his recipes inspired Soumya, a regular reader of my blogs (I know her by her handle, Chinz), to post her own version of Debjyoti’s recipe. I made my own adjustments to her doi maach, and I now boast my adaptation.
I cooked it, I liked it, I even suggested it to my mother, who remains as wary of yogurt in fish as her mother-in-law. Two weeks ago, she actually deigned to make my version of doi maach—I say deigned because her doctor told her to lose weight and I have pointed out that delicious as our home curry is, she can do without the coconut milk. How did she like it? “It was nice,” was her guarded response, “but it tasted a bit oniony.”
Until some Bengali who has bothered to read to this end of this column invites me over, I will be satisfied with my potentially sacrilegious interpretation.
Debjyoti’s ‘Doi Maach’
Debjyoti says doi maach tastes best when prepared with rohu or a similar fish of the carp family. Choose a rich, meaty fish, like a full-grown 2-4kg carp, and pick slices from close to the upper fin, avoiding the softer flesh of the underbelly. Slice into 1K-2-inch pieces.
4-5 big slices of fish
Turmeric paste (enough to smear the fish with)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
3 green cardamoms
1/2 inch stick of cinnamon
2-3 green chillies, split from the top
2 bay leaves
1/2 teacup of sour curd, whipped with a pinch of salt and half a teaspoon of sugar
1.5 tbsp mustard oil
1 cup of water
Spread about half a teaspoon of turmeric paste or powder and as much salt over the fish and rub in the marinade lightly. Heat about a tablespoon and a half of mustard oil in a pan and fry the fish slices lightly. Keep the fish aside. Put green chillies into the pan and before they begin to sputter, throw in the cumin seeds, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves. When the spices begin to cook and the aroma begins to tickle your nostrils (Debjyoti’s language), pour in a cup of cold water and let it come to a boil. Dip the fish slices into the sauce. Turn off the burner and pour the whipped curd into the pan. Serve hot with steamed rice.
The healthy, Halarnkar ‘Doi Maach’
750g fish (sole or surmai). Red snapper and trout work well, so I’m told, not salmon or cod
For the marination
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 tsp red chilli powder (or more if you wish)
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp sugar (I am wary of sugar in fish)
2 cups of yogurt
Salt to taste
2 tsp olive oil
Mix all of the above and set aside for at least an hour. Make a coarse powder of 3 black cardamoms, 3 green cardamoms, 1-inch piece of cinnamon, 6 cloves. Thinly slice 2 large onions. Heat 2 tbsp of olive or sunflower oil (oh all right, or mustard oil if you wish) in a non-stick pan. Add the coarse powder. When it starts to fizz, add the onions and fry till golden brown. Add the fish with the marinade. Close lid and cook on slow fire for 15 minutes or until done. Garnish with fresh, chopped coriander.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at email@example.com