24 February 2009

Shorsher maach (Fish in mustard-green chilli paste)

This is a dish that has been included in traditional Bengali birthday menus, when guests have been over, or as special Sunday lunches or any other occasion that demanded it. Once I started living away from my parents – since 2000 – this was also a MUST each time I visited home.

It was also the cause of much heartburn between my parents (and not due to the spices). Mamma had grown away from Nani and any cooking Mamma learnt was by trial and error after she was married. Now when my parents were married in 1978, they did not have a mixer (blenders were science fiction).
Mamma had to make the mustard-chilli paste on a sil-noda (stone grinder, called sil-batta in Hindi). It was tough work and at times the paste wouldn’t be as fine, which directly resulted in the flavour of the dish. Papa would end up comparing Mamma’s cooking to his mother’s cooking and well, comparisons with one’s mother-in-law is never a good thing in Indian households. Men!!

Funny though, the same man – as the husband – found faults and yet as the father thinks his daughter the most brilliant cook (smiles, shakes head). Men!!! Thankfully, my Partner is non-Indian (wicked grin) and anyway I leave most Australian cooking to him (wickeder grin). I still suck at salads though. Shrug.
As far as I am concerned, shorsher maach that is not jhaal (hot) is not the real thing. Then again, the jhaal has to be a right blend of the tanginess of the mustard and the zing of the green chillies. Neither should be overpowering and the idea is to give you “Ooof!” rather than make you cry. This is what we had for dinner last night and I hope you enjoy it too.
PS: Don’t have Coke with the meal, it makes your throat itchy. Discovered last night.
Did you know? The earlier Mexicans used something quite similar to the sil-noda, it was called a ‘metate y mano’. Check it out here.

Shorsher maach (Fish in mustard-green chilli paste)
Serves: 2-4
Cooked on: Deep fried then over low heat
Accompaniment: freshly cut onion slices, sprinkled with lemon juice and salt
Try this with: Steamed long-grain rice (Basmati works best)


  1. Mustard oil is a must as it adds to the flavour of the mustard. However, you can use canola or other vegetable oil.
  2. Try buying fish with an outer skin – Australian markets usually have skinless-fillets – as the crisp, fried fish skin adds to the flavour. If buying fillets, the thicker the fillet, the better. If you can get a whole, cleaned fish and cut it yourself, you’ll get the perfect pieces. Today we will cook this with fillets; perhaps will show how to cut the fish into ‘traditional’ pieces some other time.
  3. Rohu (greas carp, Labeas rohita) and hilsa/ilish (Hilsa shad, Tenualosa ilisha) are ideal for this. Since both types are predominant in the Indian subcontinent, I am using any fish with thick fillets; today’s choice are ling (Genypterus spp) skinned fillets.
  4. For those who cannot tolerate hot food; skip the green chillies completely. Be warned though, it’s not half as much fun without the chilli.
  5. Marinate the fish in the turmeric-salt mixture before you start preparing the mustard paste; the longer the fish soaks in the mixture, the better it tastes upon frying.
  6. While frying the fish, remember do NOT poke around with the fish, let it fry in peace. Basically, let one side fry thoroughly and only then turn it over to the other side. Fiddling with the fish when it’s not properly fried will lead to the fish breaking.
  7. Also mind your hand when frying the fish, the oil really splutters. Keep the oil really hot (keep on high flame). Do NOT chuck fish into the oil as (common sense tells you that) the hot oil will spill all over.
  8. Use a perforated spoon to pick fish out of oil so that extra oil drains back into the pan/wok.
  9. Use a different pan/wok to make the curry and not in the same one you’ve used for frying. Once you finish frying the fish and transfer the oil to a clean wok/pan; soak the frying pan/wok in water…it’s tough cleaning when dried out.
  10. Try not to eat the fried fish. Heh, I’ve done that many times. Also, the fried fish by itself – served with Maggi hot ‘n’ sweet sauce or any spicy chutney that you like – makes for a great party snack. Serve with onion slices sprinkled with lemon juice and some salt.

Ling skinned fillets: 980 gms (used here, change accordingly)Mustard seeds: 3-4 TBS
Green chili: 5 big; one finely sliced, four used in the paste
Turmeric ground: 2 TSP
Red chilli ground: 2 TSP
Salt: to marinate and according to taste
Nigella/kalaunji/black cumin: ½ TSP or a pinch

  1. Evenly sprinkle 1 TSP turmeric powder, 1 TSP red chilli powder and 1 TSP salt on all the fish fillets (I had eight) and rub them on the fish. Cover and keep aside. ---->
  2. In a blender, take ½ cup water, four green chillies, ½ TSP salt and all the mustard seeds and grind into a fine paste. (Run motor for 3 minutes or so). The end result should be a fine, frothy paste. Sieve through a muslin cloth/strainer into a bowl, discard the seeds, add ½ cup water to the mustard-paste-juice and keep aside.
  3. In another small bowl/cup, mix 1 TSP red chilli powder and 1 TSP turmeric powder with 3 TBS water. Keep aside.

4. Heat oil in a deep-bottomed pan/wok on high heat the oil starts to smoke. Reduce the heat and in batches – as many pieces fit into the pan/ wok without overcrowding – fry the fish pieces till each side is browned and crisp. Once all pieces are fried, cover them and keep aside.

  1. 5. Drain the oil – careful it’s going to be bloody hot – into another pan/wok and keep heat at medium. As the oil starts to smoke – should happen quickly as the oil’s still pretty hot -- add the nigella seeds.
    6. As soon as the nigella splutters, add the red chilli-turmeric paste and fry, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.
    7. Now add the fried fish pieces, one at a time and let each side of the fish cook for about 1-2 minutes before adding the next piece. The idea is to allow all the pieces to be coated with the chilli-turmeric paste.
    8. Once all pieces are coated as above, add the diluted mustard paste along with the thinly sliced green chillies, add another ½ cup water, turn the stove flame to high and bring to a boil.
    9. Once the broth boils, reduce heat to low/minimum and simmer till gravy thickens. Do not cover and remember to turn the fish – might be twice-thrice depending on how long it takes to dry out – while the gravy thickens.
    10. Serve hot with steamed basmati rice. You could squeeze some lemon juice on it as well. Best eaten with hands and licking your fingers is acceptable etiquette.

Confused about your fishes? Try this…

22 February 2009

Aloo-begun (Potatoes and eggplant with fennel)

23 February 2009
Someone once told me that eggplant/ brinjal is called begun in Bangla (baingan in Hindi) because it lacks any gun or good qualities. I don’t know if it’s an old wives tale or if there’s any truth to it. According to this website though, eggplants are recommended for those interested in losing weight! That’s a bit of a surprise because the two ways that I really like my eggplants – deep-fried or in lamb moussaka – are both loaded with fat. Then there’s this blog that suggests that perhaps the veggie loses its value when cooked. Whatever be the case, I quite enjoy my begun.

This dish was/is one of Papa’s favourites and one of the few times he enjoyed a parantha. Papa has always been more of a chapatti man. Mamma used to make this as Sunday brunch, usually along with thick-gravied chicken/meat as the non-vegetarian dish for the day. While growing up, the only way I liked my eggplant was as begun bhaaja (thick slices of eggplant, deep fried). I never appreciated the sheer magic of this simple dish. Surprisingly now, it’s one of my favourites.

I was quite surprised to discover that eggplant is quite a staple in Australia. Folks even have grilled eggplant in their sandwiches, though I daresay am not exactly partial to begun in my sandwich. You can call it a mental block or cultural difference.

I’ve shared this particular recipe with a lady here – Partner’s school friend’s wife – and she loved it. Recently she told me she cooked it for her in-laws and they loved it too. Being ever sceptical of compliments, I had politely smiled when she’d given me the feedback. However, I was duly chastised later when I happened to bump into her sister-in-law who mentioned that she had tasted one of my recipes and had completely loved it. Moral of the story: Cynicism is not healthy when cooking eggplants.

Note to self: Call Mamma and thank her… Thanks Mamma!

Aloo-begun (Potatoes and eggplant with fennel)
Serves: 2
Cooked on: Low heat in covered pan/wok
Accompaniment: Salad of your choice
Try this with: Paranthas

Mustard oil (preferred) or canola (any vegetable) oil: 1 TBS
Fennel seeds: 2 TBS
Potatoes, old*: 2 big, peeled and diced
Brinjal/ aubergine/ egg plant: 2 big (6-8 long ones), diced
Green chilli: 1-2, optional
Salt: to taste
Turmeric ground: 1 heaped TSP
Coriander ground: 1 heaped TSP
Red chilli ground: 1 level TSP (or as hot as you want)
Sugar: 1 TSP
Ginger: 1”, grated
Water: 2 TBS
Coriander: fresh, enough to garnish, optional

TBS = tablespoon; TSP = teaspoon

  1. Brinjal cooks faster than potatoes; therefore use older potatoes as they cook faster than tougher, new ones.
  2. Brinjal and potatoes turn black when left in open air. Cut vegies right before you start cooking. To prevent potatoes from turning black, keep diced potatoes soaked in a bowl of water with 1 TSP salt in it. Drain water when cooking.
  3. While both potatoes and brinjal are diced, the potatoes will be diced slightly smaller than the brinjal. The texture of both vegetables is different; therefore cooking times are different. In order to prevent either your brinjal overcooking or potatoes remaining undercooked, please ensure you cut them as mentioned.
  4. Always keep your spices, salt etc handy so that you’re not opening-closing cupboards to find them.
  5. The vegies in this dish are cooked mainly by steaming so you will need a wok/ deep frying pan with a tight-fitting lid.
  6. Please wear an apron! If you are anything like me, the potatoes will have a tendency of (in)frequently flying out of the pan and landing on your tee shirt. Turmeric splatters are tough to remove from clothes.


  1. Heat the (mustard) oil in the deep frying pan on low heat till it starts smoking (keep your exhaust on).
  2. Once oil smokes, add the fennel seeds; they should start spluttering in a minute.
  3. Now add the potatoes and sauté for 5-7 minutes. You’ll need to mix the potatoes and fennel so that the fennel does not burn (horrid taste) or the spuds don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
  4. Once potatoes turn slightly golden, add the brinjal/eggplant. Mix well so that both potatoes and brinjal are coated with the fennel seeds. Again, ensure fennel does not turn black. Cook for 5-7 minutes, mixing intermittently.
  5. Once brinjal turns brown, add salt, turmeric, red chilli and ground coriander and mix well so that vegies are well-coated with spice mixture. Increase heat to medium and cook open for 3 minutes, mixing well. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and cook covered for another 5 minutes.
  6. Remove lid, mix vegies again, sprinkle the sugar and mix well for another 2 minutes. You will notice that spice mixture begins to start sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add 2 TBS water, grated ginger, mix well and cover the pan. Cook for 8 minutes.
  7. At the end of cooking time, the vegies should be giving off a brilliant spuddy-fennelly (oh well) aroma. Uncover the pan and check the potatoes with a fork. If they break/can be cut easily with a fork, your vegies are ready. If not, mix well, sprinkle a little more water – do not drown the vegies! – and cook covered for another 5 minutes or till done. Usually you don’t need the second round of covered cooking.
  8. Finally, remove lid and cook open for another 2 minutes, scraping off the caramelised spices at the bottom of the pan and mix well with the vegies.
  9. Turn off the gas and allow to cool slightly while covered. Transfer to serving dish, garnish with coriander and serve with paranthas/puris.

We’re done!
PS: If you do try this, please let me know how it turns out and if you liked the dish.

20 February 2009

Ingredients for a tummyful of love

20 February 2009
Pic = Jhoomur Bose
Have I ever told you -- am assuming some people are here from my other blog Eve Emancipation -- that I don't like cooking for myself? However, when it comes to feeding people, I can do it any time. It's a little surprising since of the three major cooking influences in my life, two do it (cooking) because they have to.

While growing up, I have completely loved the food that my Ma and my Nani (maternal grandma) have cooked. Both make different things -- Nani is more traditional, Ma is an expert in Chinese -- and both have very different cooking styles. Both these ladies cooked to feed their families and Ma has been known to declare that she quite hates cooking.

Ma's problem was having to think up of WHAT to cook on a daily basis. I guess it can get tedious when you have two growing kids, a husband who does not help in the kitchen and yet insists on a five course meal. And of course, home-delivery wasn't such a big thing then. However, despite her lack of enthusiasm, Ma was a true-blue Army wife from the older generation. She made Papa happy with her food and she could cook up some exotic things when they had brigade commanders and GOC (General Officer Commanding) coming over for dinner at our house.

However, the one person who has made the most impression on me -- both food-wise and as a person -- is my mother's aunt. We call her 'Pimmi'. That is not her name and in fact I don't even know her real name, but in the true tradition of Bengali nicknames, she is Pimmi to everyone. She was Pimmi to Ma, to me and I daresay those who will come after us. There was always a great level of enthusiasm whenever we went visiting her and family on Sundays. Pimmi made the MOST awesome mangshor jhol (mutton curry)... perfectly succulent meat, with big, chunky potatoes and really spicy! The highlight for me though was being hand-fed. My brother was too small and little shit never got to taste that, hah.

So either Pimmi or her daughter Pinkidiwould make me sit on the table and would make huge balls of the rice-mixed-with-curry and feed me. It was sheer, sheer bliss. I can still smell the mangsho. As I grew up, I took to standing in her kitchen, plate in hand, waiting to be the first one to eat. The last that I visited them in 2003 -- I was 24 -- and Pinkidi fed me again. There was so much love that went into the cooking and then the obvious pleasure in feeding others... I will never forget that. When I cook, I try to be the same.

I guess offering to feed people by hand will startle most -- especially here in Australia, they'd insist on gloves -- so I stick to pouring my heart out in my food. Most people who've had my food have liked it. I am grateful to my friends who came home because "Jhoomur is cooking." In my single days, I fed bands of boys. (smiles) They kept me sane.

The recipes I will share here will be tried and tested. Most will be Indian food and from recipes I've gleaned from my mother and others. There will also be recipes from world cuisine as well and from books and websites. Those will be duly credited. Some will have stories to go with them, others strictly recipes. We shall see as we grow along. So here we go...

Before I start posting any recipes, there are a few things you will need to cook food, JB-style. Some I know the Hindi names for, others I don't. Please feel free to correct or add. As long as you have a basic wok/ kadhai (with a lid) and a saucepan with a lid, we shall be fine. However, these are the ingredients I simply cannot cook without:

Whole spices
Cumin seeds: jeera
Coriander seeds: dhania
Mustard seeds: sarson
Fenugreek seeds: methi
Black cardamom: badi ilaichi
Cloves: laung
Black peppercorns: kali mirch
Bay leaves: tej patta
Dried, red chili: sabut lal mirch
Cinnamon stick: dal chini
Poppy seeds: khus-khus

Ground spices
Cumin ground/ powder
Coriander ground/ powder
Garam masala: mixed spices, available as ‘garam masala’ in stores
Red chilli powder
Turmeric ground/ powder
Black pepper ground
Salt: let’s not forget that!

Notes and other important things:

1. Have a standard teaspoon and tablespoon ready
2. Wooden spoon/ spatula for cooking in non-stick ware
3. Dish-cloths (4), one for wiping your cooking bench, one only for wiping your hand, one for wiping spoon(s) and another for drying dishes
4. Chopping board, whether plastic or wood, you need one
5. Knives, one for your veges and one only for meats; I have more for specific purposes; we shall add along as we cook
6. Plastic bags to throw in peels and other refuse
7. Dustpan and small broom; I am very messy and find it handy to have these ready when I manage to spill stuff (which is regularly)
8. Someone to do the cleaning up after you. Bwahahaha, kidding! But if you can, it's smart to have an arrangement where you cook and someone else cleans. (evil grin)