I’ve been cooking fish since I was thirteen or fourteen. Plump, bright-eyed rohu, catla ( both varieties of South Asian carp) and other freshwater fish were staples on our table. I even recall cleaning and gutting them without feeling squeamish. Cooking fish these days normally involves sea fish, as my kitchen moves with my husband’s job from one coastal city to another.
This most recent relocation has brought me back to Mumbai, a city that I’ve lived in on and off, ever since I was twenty-three. I may not be born and brought up here, but each time I get here, I feel like I’d never left. The strings that bind me to this crowded, chaotic metropolis are too tightly knotted to be unravelled. And I’ve cooked and eaten some of the best fish here.
Living in temporary digs, with most of my utensils and appliances in storage, I thought it would be interesting to cook using just what I have at hand, and maybe lean on a friend for bits and bobs. The sight of fresh, succulent kingfish (also called seer fish and known locally as surmai) at my fishmonger’s had me craving a bold, mustard-flavoured fish curry. Shorshe maachch is a celebrated freshwater fish curry from Bengal, where cooking fish like rohu or hilsa ( Indian shad from the herring family) in a sauce based on black mustard paste is very traditional. It is a curry to die for. In Odisha, they make maachch besara, another mustard-flavoured fish curry with the tang of dried raw mangoes and yoghurt. Both curries have the pungent hit of mustard (somewhat like wasabi and horseradish), that tastes so good with steamed rice. The key lies in balancing the quantity of mustard seeds in the masala paste so that the curry is punchy but stops short of making your eyes water.
My mustard fish curry has been a little influenced by cooking fish the way they do in many parts of south India. Purists may balk at the idea, but I like to think (and people who eat my curry tend to agree) that this fusion works. I use sea fish and add coconut milk and curry leaves in the sauce. The mustard masala base remains the same. I’ve found that the mellow coconut milk cuts the sharpness of the mustard giving the sauce a slight creamy sweetness which enhances the dish taking nothing away from its original character.
Cooking fish in the Eastern India involves lightly frying the fish before adding it to the curry. Slices of fish are rubbed with salt and a little ground turmeric, rested for ten to fifteen minutes and fried with a very light touch barely for a minute on each side to give the fillets a touch of colour. Golden mustard oil is a must for the most flavour. If mustard oil is not to your liking, any neutral vegetable oil will do. Grinding stones are used to pulverise the tiny mustard seeds in the masala. This crushing releases the most fragrant oils from the crushed seeds. But these days in modern kitchens, a coffee grinder does the job equally well. The curry is cooked in the remaining oil in the same pan and the fish is added once the masala is cooked and the coconut milk has been added. Prawns cooked the same way also turn out delicious. But remember, if you decide to use prawns, cook them only once, in the sauce, otherwise you’ll end up with tough, dry shrimp. This is a memorable fish dish to have in your recipe book. I like it especially because it sort of represents my roots – my father belonged to east India and my mom is from the south. And the twain meet in this very special fish curry.
- 6 1-inch thick slices of surmai or rohu
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 300 ml unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 10 curry leaves
- 2 green chillies slit lengthwise
- 2 tbsps mustard oil or any vegetable oil
- 1½ tbsp black mustard seeds soaked in 2 tbsps of water for an hour
- 2 tsp poppy seeds soaked in water with the mustard seeds
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 3-4 green chillies (as per your preference)
- 1-inch piece of ginger peeled
- 1 large onion, quartered
- Wash the fish and pat dry to remove all moisture. Rub with turmeric and a teaspoon of salt and set aside for 15 minutes.
- While the fish rests, make the spice paste.
- Drain the mustard and poppy seeds (taking care that they don’t flow out with the soaking water), and grind together with all the other masala ingredients in a coffee grinder (using a little water if necessary) to form a thick paste. A coffee grinder or a small food processor is better at pulverising the tiny poppy seeds that may escape the blades in a large container.
- Heat a tbsp of oil in a frying pan and fry the fish ( 2 or 3 pieces at a time), for 30-40 seconds on each side. Remove and rest.
- Add another tsp of oil to the same pan and add the whole mustard seeds and curry leaves so that they pop and crackle.
- Turn down the heat and put in the spice paste. Stir and cook the paste for 5-7 minutes till oil starts to separate from the mixture. It's important to keep the flame down to ensure that the masala doesn’t burn. Sprinkle a little water if it sticks to the pan.
- Once the masala is cooked, pour in the coconut milk and toss in the slit green chillies and simmer for 3-4 minutes.
- Now gently slip in the fried fish and cook on low simmer for 3 minutes or until the fish is just done.
- Prep time does not include time taken to soak the mustard seeds.