mohabhoj


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The sight and smell of fish make me happy!

 

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I walked into the bustling fish market armed with the quintessential striped thole (reusable nylon grocery bag). The fish scale strewn brick lane was glistening with a Bengali’s enthusiasm for fish.

The clock had 30 minutes to strike nine but the market was heaving with customers. They had resisted the temptation to laze around the house on a Sunday morning for their greater love of fish. Fish that will eventually end up on their lunch platter – fried and slathered in gravy.

Blood and guts everywhere. Severed fish heads. Gills, fins, roe and bloody scales. The smell hovering over both obnoxious and delectable. Delectable to my Bengali palate that will wither away sans fish.

Fishmongers lined both sides of the narrow lane. Seated on a concrete platform they flaunted their day’s catch, spread on fresh green banana leaves. The tarpaulin lined asbestos roof, held upright with bamboo props, provided shade. They were straining their voices to lure patrons. The sound both mellifluous and cacophonous.

“Bhalo bhetki hobe dada, niye jan,” assured one of the fishmongers.
( The bhetki [a freshwater fish] is real good brother, take it home.)

Rui, katla, ilish, bhetki, pabda, parshe, chitol, chingri, bata, khayra, magur — fish of varying shapes, sizes and tastes. A feast for the eyes and soul; never frozen, always fresh. Some dead and some merrily alive.

The fishmonger will swiftly scale and gut the fish for you. And if you fancy a special cut for your catch, he will readily cater to your taste. The whetted boti his paintbrush, the fish his canvas; enchanting customers with his dexterity.

[My Kolkata trip would have been incomplete without a visit to my neighborhood fish market.]

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Cooking Doi Maach for a chef

Cooking for a restaurateur/chef is intimidating. Especially so when you are enlisted with the task of introducing a dish to his palate.

I met with Pushpir Bhetia — the owner of the Indian restaurant called Guru, in Somerville — in February this year for an interview, as part of my research work on Sikh immigrants in Boston.

Apart from talking about the prime issue — Sikhs being target of hate crimes in the US especially after 9/11— we talked a lot about food.

During one such conversation, we talked about fish. When you are talking about food and fish isn’t mentioned, a Bengali might quickly lose interest. Bhetia knew this. He asked me what kind of specialty fish dishes Bengalis dish out when it comes to entertaining guests.

Doi Maach, I said. Fish cooked in a yogurt-based gravy.

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Pungent mustard oil is tempered with bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and red chilies and as soon as the warm spicy flavor hits the nose the creamy ginger-garlic-onion and tomato paste is introduced. Turmeric, cumin powder, salt and sugar goes in next and the mixture is cooked till the oil separates from the gravy. Half a cup of well beaten yogurt is then added. After cooking the mixture for a couple of minutes half-cup water is introduced to the gravy and once it comes to a boil the lightly fried pieces of rui are added. The mixture is then cooked till the desired gravy consistency is achieved. A sprinkle of garam masala and the dish is ready to be enjoyed with warm fluffy white rice.

Bhetia seemed intrigued by the recipe and I promised to bring him some doi maach once my semester was over.

My semester was over by the last week of April. I got busy doing nothing.

But yesterday I decided to act on my promise. I cooked doi maach but the whole cooking process was a bit intimidating, like I said. The thought that I was cooking for a chef kept badgering me.

Once the dish was ready I packed it carefully inside a container. When I arrived at the restaurant, Bhetia was busy cooking baingan bharta.

I handed over the doi maach to him along with the recipe. I was planning to leave but he asked me to wait, as he scooped out a spoonful of rice, from the rice cooker, on a plate.

“This is going to be my lunch today,” he said, as he opened the container I brought him.

It was like a nightmare come true; my paper was being graded right in front of me!

I stood in the kitchen as I watched him eat. It took him around ten minutes to finish the six pieces of fish that I had carefully nestled in the container for him.

“So, what’s the verdict?” I asked timidly.

Pointing towards the empty, gravy stained container he said, “Need I say more?”


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Bhoj (banquet)

Picture a dinner plate decked with a dome shaped jumbo scoop of white fluffy long- grained rice. A trio of vegetable fry (potato, eggplant and bitter gourd) lazing near the periphery of the rice bed serves as sentry. Basking in self-glory are seven mid-sized color coordinated bowls, stretching out to form an arc around the plate. Lentil soup with fish head, mixed vegetables, two different kinds of fish curry, and mutton drenched in gravy are heaped in order. The last two bowls nestling dry fruit chutney and rice pudding smugly await their turn to tantalize your sweet tooth.

Drooling already?! Half of the Bengali population around the globe is actually going to savor this elaborate spread today to mark the beginning of the first day of the month of Baishak or the Bengali New Year.

I belong to the other half. Gulping down dinner tucked away in the couch, eyes glued to the blaring television, will mark the end of my first day of the year.

Therefore, to add a pinch of novelty to the otherwise mundane weekly dinner spread, I decided to fry maacher chop (fish croquettes). This way I won’t be confronting guilt the day after, taunting me as to how I would have to wait another year before I get a chance to make up for my gastronomical loss.

Maacher chop happens to be one of my favorites. Making this delicacy serves three purposes. One, it automatically pushes the party button in my head, two, it helps me sweep up the peti (belly) pieces of the fish which we both otherwise dislike and three, it weaves in an aura of nostalgia.

I confess making it is not a breeze but the labor that goes into preparing this tastebud stimulating snack is worth the trouble.

Here’s my recipe just in case you feel like undertaking this adventure. Enjoy these heavenly ‘crispy outside and fishy inside’ bites!

Have a sumptuous New Year. Subho Noboborsho!!


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A fishy tale

I can travel for miles to buy fish, labor for hours to scale fish and feel like a magician while cooking fish. Yes, you got it right I am a Bengali. I shamelessly admit that the sight of my freezer suffocating with a variety of fish, has the same effect on me as a spa therapy has on a stressed out soul. The assurance it lends, that I can have a meal of rice accompanied by fish whenever I please, makes my day.

As a child I remember accompanying my father to the fish market every Sunday. The fishy smell, the glittering fish scale strewn alleys and the “50 Rs/kg” cries of the fishmongers still linger on my mind. To my surprise I found myself shopping for fish in malls, all packed and ready to hit the scorching oil, after I moved to Bangalore. Now in the US, a Bangladeshi store called Foodland, located in Cambridge, satiates my love for fish. Once a month I coax my husband into driving me 30 miles each way in return of the promise to cook him his favorite doi maach (fish in yogurt curry).

The fish haven located at the basement of the store is lined with large, once white freezers crammed with the prize. Once I pick my fish, big enough to last a month, the man behind the counter cuts the fish into precise pieces with an electric knife. During the long drive back home I usually contemplate about different fish curry recipes to match up to the month long cooking marathon.

The daunting scaling process begins once I reach home, with me bent over the kitchen sink armed with a quarter (25cent coin) as my scaling gadget. Cries of my husband voicing his disbelief as to how I can labor for hours over a fish fades in the background as memories of fishmongers scaling their catch with fifty paisa coins rush in my mind, lighting up my face with a smile.

Back at home, in Kolkata, having fish for lunch and dinner, is a ritual, unless some near or dear ones happen to pass away. Then you are expected to go into mourning, marked by the beginning of a gruelling eleven-day-long vegetarian diet, I believe meant to reassure the departed that you still care. I remember one such instance. It was a Sunday, my father returned from the bazaar bragging about his catch, Pabda maach. My mom knew this called for pabda maacher kalo jeera jhol (a light fish curry prepared with kalonji seeds) for lunch.

We sat down for lunch and my sister stooped over the bowl of fish curry to get the largest piece before I could reach for it when the dining room resounded with that ominous telephone call. It was my Aunt informing us about the demise of my father’s distant octogenarian uncle. My sister and I had never seen this grandfather of ours. She looked at me helplessly and at the fish for one last time. We knew right away how dearly we would miss the fish curry and braced ourselves to brave the 11-day ordeal. We secretly envied and cursed our maid who would get to pack our share home. The fish preparation was promptly replaced with dal (lentil soup) and alu bhaja (fried potatoes). My father returned to the table with a sigh. Till date I wonder whether the sigh was really meant for his long forgotten uncle!