Fish kalia or rui / rohu macher kalia – a rich preparation of spicy and flavoured fish curry in Bengali style.
Owing to the riverine geographical landscape of Bengal, fish always held a predominant status in Bengali’s life and culture. Much to the astonishment of many people, fish is considered auspicious here in Bengal. In marriage ceremonies, in festivals and pujas (religious practices) fish remains integral to our culture so much so that fish and Bengalis become synonym to each other. However, I have met few non-fish eating Bengalis too and had listened to their woes, how they have been mercilessly rebuked for their choice. As a society in general, we love to paint everyone with the same brush, decline to think beyond the stereotypes. We forget that we all deserve an individualistic choice or right to choice, to live the way we wanted to.
Before the Portuguese brought the tomatoes and potatoes, or Nawabs added the colorful glory to the Bengali cuisine, the fish was usually prepared in simplistic way, with few spices like cumin, kalonji and ginger paste with vegetables added in some proportion to make it a complete meal. The waterlogged paddy fields were not just a staple source of Bengali diet, they were resources of many fresh water fishes too.
For long, Bengal remain the preferred home for the exiled Nawabs and when they settled down there, they had literally transported their kitchen too in the far-flung fringes of the city. With them they had brought their spices, the cooking techniques and had influenced the Bengali cuisine to a great extent, left behind the rich legacies of their distinctive culture. Having being in the center of trade, political power and cultural exchanges, the multiculturalism is highly evident in the Bengali cuisine, the flavours and taste flourishes to this day.
Of three classes of cooked dishes, as per the culinary chronicles of Mughal era, kalia, quorma, do piyazaa and kebabs comprises the single all-meat class of cooked dishes. The other two classes are the meat less dishes like rice, halwa, vegetables and the other one is dishes where meat is cooked with grains like biryani, pulao etc. Kalia is rich preparation of meat or fish in this case, in red colored gravy thanks to the tomatoes (tomatoes are generally not added in Bengali recipes) and are flavoured with rich spices and nut paste. The result is rich, delectable and flavoured version of fish curry, worthy of special occasions like marriage ceremonies.
For kalia, a good and freshest carp is required, mostly rui or rohu (grass crap) is prefered for the recipe. The fish must not weigh less than 2 kg, else the taste will be highly compromised. And also a mature fish will yield good and decent size of steak pieces. Frying the steaks of fish are must, to ensue the rich taste of the fish curry. This adds the perfect crispness to the fish and also it helps to hold together the fish well. I don’t know how people got this funny idea that Bengalis fry the fish to get rid off the fishy smell or to hide the staleness of the fish. No self-respecting Bengali would ever get caught dead with stale fish, it is against our genetic code.
- Steaks of grass carp (rui / rohu fish or katla) : 6 medium size
- Onion paste of one medium onion : ¼ cup
- Onion : 1 medium finely chopped
- Tomato paste of one large tomato
- Curd: 1 tsp or optional
- Ginger-garlic paste : 1 tsp
- Green chillies : 1 or 2
- Cashew : ¼ cup
- Rasiin : ¼ cup
- Turmeric powder : ½ tsp + more for smearing the fish
- Cumin powder : 1 tsp
- Red chilli powder : 1 tsp
- Bengali garam masala : ½ tsp
- Salt and sugar to taste
- Mustard oil : for frying the fish
- Bay leaves : 1 or 2
- cilantro for garnishing
- Wash and clean the fish steaks.
- Smear the fish pieces with salt and turmeric.
- soak the cashew and raisin for half an hour. Leaving few pieces for garnishing, make a paste of cashew and raisin together.
- Heat the mustard oil in the pan. Fry the fish pieces one by one gently turning them, frying each side for around 1-2 minute, but not more than that.
- Slot out the fish pieces from the oil and drain them on kitchen towel to get rid off excess oil.
- In the same pan, add more oil if requires, fry the onion and onion paste.
- Once the onion stops releasing the juices, add the ginger garlic paste. brown the onion-ginger garlic paste.
- Add the tomato paste, increase the flame and fry it on high heat.
- Add the spices, salt, sugar, and bay leaves. Keep braising the spices and onion -tomato paste on medium heat till the mixture oozes out oil. This will take some time around 10 minutes.
- Once the mixture is braised enough, mix the curd with cashew-raisin paste and add it to this.
- Give everything a nice stir, lower the heat and cook it for another 5 minute.
- Add the green chillies, check the seasonings, add if it requires anything.
- Add 2 cups warm water to the spice mixture., blend it well.
- Slide the fish pieces gently, one at a time. Cover and cook for another 4-5 minute.
- Swiched off the heat, add the chopped cilantro, cover and let the fish absorb the gravy.
- Serve fish kalia garnished with cashew and raisins with steamed rice or with pulao.
Fish kalia is enjoyed best with Bengali mishti (sweet) pulao but you can always serve it with steamed rice to spice up the typical regular mundane mach-bhaat (fish-rice) fare. For Bengali garam masala spice blend, check the recipe here.
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