Bengal’s culture of fish has been determined in large part by its geography. Most of Bengal is a fertile alluvial plain, giving rise to rivers and wetlands that are partial to growing rice and prone to flooding. Kolkata sits at the mouth of the Hooghli River—which is a tributary of the Ganges—where it meanders through its delta into the Bay of Bengal. The land is often inundated by water, but the fish are abundant.
For most Bengalis, the fish course signifies the mainstay of a meal: without it, a meal is not quite complete. Eating fish, choosing fish, preparing fish . . . in short, knowing fish might be essential to a Bengali’s food identity and such was the case with both sides of my extended family in India. My parents carried this longing for their Bengali fish curries to America, and so it was that they became preoccupied with fish.
The lack of freshly caught fish in American grocery stores meant that we traveled for fish, going to the fishmongers and ports in New Jersey and New York when home was on the East Coast. When we moved to the Midwest, my father seemed a little despondent. Fish was not popular in the suburbs of Chicago in the late 1970s. And so we went in search of fish, which we eventually found near downtown Chicago, on Fulton Street. Once a year, the shad fish, also known as hilsa or ilish (Bengali: ইলিশ Ilish), came into season for a few short weeks and my father splurged on this fish with a certain abandon. It was then left to my mother to prepare the ilish, which needed a proper sauce, and only the shorshe, or mustard, would do.
For everyone who has noted (correctly, I might add) that a compendium of Bengali recipes cannot be considered substantive without recipes for fish, here is my first one.
Salmon in Mustard Sauce or Sorshe Macher Jhol
Mustard is the classic sauce preparation for shad or hilsa fish, which is not widely available in the States. These days, my fish of choice for mustard sauce is salmon. Other good alternatives include grouper, mahi-mahi, and red snapper. The following recipe is easy to make, but the finished product is not for the timid. The flavors here are sharp and powerful, and best complemented by fish with an assertive flavor. Traditionally, the fish is cut into steaks and the skin is left on the fish, but I’ve used boneless, skinless fillets. Use the freshest fish you can find.
1 ½ pounds Atlantic Salmon fillets
¼ cup of dry, dark brown mustard seeds
2 tablespoons yogurt
2-4 green chili peppers
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ medium tomato: skinned, seeded and pureed, or 1 tsp tomato paste
Mustard oil if you can find it, unflavored oil such as canola if you cannot.
1. Seasoning the Fish
Cut salmon into 3 x3 fillets, sprinkle with salt and ½ teaspoon turmeric. Mix thoroughly to coat and set aside.
2. Making Basic Mustard Sauce or Shorshe Bata
Soak the dry mustard seeds in a little bit of water to soften. Use just enough water to cover and soak for approximately 15-30 minutes. Transfer to a blender, add yogurt and blend until the mustard forms a smooth, only slightly grainy paste (a mini-blender works well here, with the speed set to “high”). The yogurt helps to emulsify the mixture, and its acid helps to brighten and round out the pungent sharpness of the mustard. Some people like to add chili peppers and a touch of salt at this stage to season the mustard. Scrape down the sides when blending, and, if needed, add water very gradually until the mixture is the consistency of runny cake batter. It will keep, covered, in the refrigerator, for 3 to 4 days.
3. Making the Dish.
Fish curries are made quickly, to ensure the fish does not dry out while cooking. Add several tablespoons of oil to a large skillet with the heat on medium high. When the oil is heated through, add fresh green chilies if you like, and then the fish. Sear each side working quickly. Once the fish has been seared, lower heat to medium, add the mustard mixture and tomato. Stir to incorporate. Taste for salt and acid, adding a squirt of lemon if needed. This dish should not be sour— only sharp—and acid enhances the pungency of mustard and helps also to blunt any bitter aftertaste. Add a scant amount of water if needed. Lower heat, cover and simmer sauce along with fish for another 5-7 minutes, or until fish is done and sauce has thickened slightly. Serve with rice.