A Fish Called Pabda
I am not a great one for celebrating every Bengali festival under the sun. In fact, I find the Bengali baro mashe tero parbone (13 festivals in 12 months) tradition downright tiresome. However, if you're staying away from home, you tend to experience the typical expat’s zeal for observing every date on his or her native culture calendar. And so it was that I decided to celebrate Poila Baishakh, the first day of the Bengali New Year, by cooking a few special dishes. And, needless to say, eating them.
Pabda Maachher Jhaal is an eternal favourite in Bengal. The fish has a distinctive taste, no bones (barring the central one), and tastes absolutely smashing when cooked in a simple mustard sauce.
However, this is one fish I don't cook too often. Mainly because frying it is fraught with danger — it sputters and sets off minor explosions when placed in hot oil. Frying Pabda and escaping unscathed is basically a function of superhuman agility and dumb luck. You have to move away at lightning speed after slipping the fish into the hot oil lest you're left with a few blisters here and there.
Okay, I exaggerate. But only a bit. You do have to be extra careful while frying Pabda. (By the way, reducing the heat, or worse, covering the wok while frying, is an absolute no-no. It kills the taste of the fish — any fish — and makes it bland and unpleasant.)
Anyway, to cut this long introduction short, I was feeling quite intrepid this Poila Baishakh morning so I decided to have a go at cooking a Padba Maachher Jhaal. Here’s the recipe. The method is simple enough, but everything hangs on a fine balance of ingredients. There are no heavy masalas here to mask errors of judgment. Once you get it right — the pungency of the mustard sauce perfectly set off by the sharp flavour of green chillies and coriander leaves — there is no fish dish that tastes more mouth watering.
Pabda Maachher Jhaal
1 and 1/2 tsp kalo jire or kalonji
3 tbsp mustard seeds ground with two green chillies
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 and a 1/2 tsp red chilli powder
5 green chillies, slit slightly
A few sprigs of coriander leaves
Mustard oil for frying
A pinch of salt and turmeric to smear the fish with
Salt to taste
Lightly wash the fish and smear with a bit of turmeric and salt.
Heat the oil in the wok. Be liberal with the oil -- the fish won’t fry well otherwise. Fry the fish over high heat in batches — ideally, two at a time. When one side is done, turn them over and fry the other side. Don't over fry. Remove with a slotted spoon and keep aside.
Once all the fish are fried, strain the hot oil into a bowl. Now pour the strained oil back into the wok and put it back on fire.
Mix the turmeric and red chilli powder in a bit of water and keep it ready.
When the oil is hot, drop the green chillies into it. Stir and scald them a bit. Then add the kalo jire. Give it a stir for a few seconds and add the chilli-turmeric mixture. Fry over high heat, stirring continuously.
When the masala is done, add water. After the water comes to boil, gently place the fried fish into the wok. The water should come up to the level of the fish. Now add salt. Let it boil on high for a few minutes. Then reduce the heat and simmer till the fish are done. You may need to reduce extra gravy by putting the flame on high again. When you feel the gravy has reached the desired quantity, mix a bit of water with the ground mustard and strain it into the wok. Gently stir it into the fish gravy. Check the seasoning. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves. And take it off the fire.
Remember, do not keep simmering the fish for long after adding the ground mustard — that destroys the kick of the mustard sauce.
Serve with steamed rice.