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…


Sree said...

Back to store for fish now!Hmm.Never tasted a Bengali fish before.And I like the way you put every detail.

Oh..while the fennel was spluttering,got an interview call.Should promise them some fish in return for a job.

Good to see another side of you.
Take care.

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Sree: and let me guess, the fennel blackened before you came back from the call, eh? :) best of luck for the interview. applied for some jobs as well...no call, not even a response. with people "letting go" of people, dont know what are the chances of me getting a job!

Goofy Mumma said...

My my, you write in such detail, and with English names for all ingredients, even rui and ilish. Wow! Feels like reading a continental menu you know. :) My mother uses the shil-noda, and loves it.
Do you do a lot of net searches while posting, or do you just know all those details. Its great that you have all your thick bottom pans and woks there, i still miss mine from back home.
PS - Just wondering, The Partner can handle such hot dishes?

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Goofy Mumma: LOL, na... it started with looking for a picture for 'Ling' then realised that the Aussies wouldn't know rui or ilish! Knew Nigella though. heh. But it's interesting what you come across when researching... As for Partner, he lived two years in India and that apart, he has quite an appetite and palate for hot things. Why do you think he's with me? Bwahaha. :D

Mamma mia! Me a mamma? said...

One of my all time fish favourites. I make a mean paturi, even if I do say so myself...and I don't spare the shorshe tel for the nice jhaanj that goes up your nose! :)

Anonymous said...

One of the few brilliant dishes that my bengali friends in cal hooked me on. Any idea where I'd get this in Bombay? Hot.

Sree said...

hehe not much,I did remember the "horrid taste"...so was careful.Other than running to get a pen to note down the address :(But the taste isnt horrid.Its good,actually.Maybe i should have not hesitated in putting that much of turmeric just like u said :D
Ok..next time.I so wanna try this fish.Maybe this weekend special.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the delay.Was on the road for the past 2 weeks..Of course I would love to contribute :-) it would be mostly assamese cooking though .hope it is ok..and I S.L.U.R.P shorsher maach (we call it maasor sorsori..just a difference in accent- its heaven anyway).I was home for 2 months and I never got tired of having fish every single day.:-)

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Mamma Mia = hahaha, "jhaanjh", been a while since I heard that word. And here it would be considered a fire hazard. :P

@ Adi,er,barks = Simply check out one of the 'Oh! Calcutta' restaurants... here are two:
1. Oh! Calcutta
Hotel Rosewood, Tulsiwadi Lane, Tardeo, Mumbai
Phone 23539114, 65806216, 23534372, 23533115

2. Oh! Calcutta Express
Melbourne Society, Shastri Nagar, Andheri (W), Mumbai
Phone 26364975, 26327924, 32467902

Hope those help!!! And if you DO go there, take a picture of you eating there and mail me!

@ LostontheStreet: No worries for delays lady! :) Whenever you are ready, mail me a recipe with pics...and once we have the format and other stuff established; will happily request you to be a contributor here. :D

MsMRC said...

Given the fact that I am most un-bengali like in matters of fish and that this is the ONLY fish recipe that I like , what are the chances that on a lazy-dont-want-to-cook day, I come across this drool-inducing recipe?? Also, in this god forsaken place, there's only one fish "shop" (shanty) that's out of stock by this time, I think Im going to go mad waiting till Sunday, when hubby dearest gets me the fish!! So, JB, you're going to be responsible for the possible drowning (in-her-own-saliva) of one,mad,pregnant woman by Sunday!!! :D

Sree said...

Thought of givin an update.Made the fish,ate it,loved it.And had a whole lot of rice just to eat with the sauce.This is def gonna be used more from my recipe cut outs :)

Eve* aka JB said...

@ MsMRC: I hope you've made yourself some shorsher maach by now. :)

@ Sree: Yay!!! so you've discovered the secret of rice-and-sauce all by yourself. :D It happens with everyone, even once the fish pieces are finished, the sauce is too damned tasty.

wittynith said...

This is an amazing dish JB...Was jus browsing through the websites for last few weeks just to find out the recipie that I had eaten in one of my old Bengali school friends house a decade ago..
Finally happened to get this mouth watering dish ! Hats off to you ..!

You have managed to explain each step so well that I could get the exact flavour I had 10 years back !
Got good praises from my hubby after makin this dish and all tat is bcoz of u ! :) Thanks much !

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Witty: Oh I am so glad you found the recipe useful. Thank you too for taking the time out and letting me know. Also glad that the length of the recipe -- though the real thing is quick it's explaining points -- was not a deterrent for you. Some have complained that my recipes seem really long! Enjoy the dish and hope you try some other stuff as well.
Bon appetit!