Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime ~ Maimonides
In Bengali mythology and culture, fish has always been a delicious symbol of fertility, prosperity and abundance and it touches many aspects of ceremonial and ritual life. (~ Chitrita Banerjee)
While fish is seen as smelly and gross food to many, Bengali marriages are not complete without fishes, there are many rituals where fish is an important part of it. In Bengal fish is considered holy and auspicious. Loved and blessed by our Goddesses too.
Bengali’s love for fish is an universal truth, however there are many exceptions to that. In Bengal, fish is considered as child’s first food, together with the much celebrated chaler payesh or kheer. Before we even learn to read or write, a Bong child’s training (fish stew for babies) started much early in childhood, lessons in de-boning the fish properly, and by the time he/ she reached teenage is considered an expert in that. While girls must know how to clean and cook the fishes properly, boys must learn how to identify the freshest catch of the day and these nitty gritty of whole fish business determines later much of the success of their matrimonial life. While it is true that Bengali’s love fishes, unlike the other fish eating community of the world we are fond of only fresh water fishes. Fishes that hatches well in the mighty Ganges, and its numerous tributaries that has dissected the alluvial deltaic region of Bengal basin and in the numerous ponds and lakes that dotted the fertile land of Bengal. Sea fishes are strict no-no for many.
Pabda is one such fresh water fish, Pabo catfish in English and it has very delicate sweet taste. There are many fishes that don’t freeze well, and Pabda is one such. To devour its sweet taste and the flavour, it should be enjoyed fresh and also the size matters here. Pabda like Parshe should be small enough to get accommodated in the quarter size plates. Bigger than that its origins are doubtful and questionable. A true fish fanatic will consider all these factors before laying his hands on the freshet catch of the Pabda from local fish market.
Now this is news to many that most of the Bengali vegetarian dishes are strictly no-onion, no garlic recipes. Here comes another breaking news- many Bengali fish dishes are also no – onion, no garlic recipes. Apparently it seems that traditional Bengali cooking does not conform to the very idea of making a rich sauce or curry using onion, tomatoes and garlic. We prepare food very differently. Like this Pabda fish which is cooked without onion, garlic and tomato. While sorshe bata mach is doing good business in Non-Bengali circuit, that is not the only way we cook fish. A true blue Bong must know or can invent (we are very accommodating sorts) thousands of ways to make a macher jhol. In my home, Pabdas are mostly enjoys with nigella and daler bori ( lentil wadi), sans any onion or garlic, well that is almost sacrilegious to use here. Though Panch phoron is most celebrated spice blend from Bengal but in my opinion and what I have observed , nigella or kalonji or kalo jeera is the most loved spice in Bengali food.
- Pabda mach / pabo catfish : 8-10 small size
- Nigella seeds : ¾ tsp (must have)
- Ginger-cumin paste : 2 tbsp (see note how to make it)
- Green chillies : 3-4 or as per taste
- Turmeric powder : 1 tbsp
- Red chilli powder : a large pinch (just to add some color)
- Salt : 1 tbsp plus as per taste
- Sugar : ½ tbsp
- Coriander leaves (fresh) : ½ cup finely chopped (must have)
- Daler bodi / lentil wadis : 6-8 (must have)
- Mustard oil as required
- Wash the fish thoroughly and smear them evenly with generous amount of salt and turmeric powder. Keep aside for 15 minute or so.
- In a separate pan fry the daler bodi or lentil wadis and keep aside.
- Heat a large fry pan or kadhai and add the mustard oil enough for frying the fishes.
- Once the oil is smoking hot, carefully place the fish one by one, maximum two or three fish at at time. Do not overcrowd the pan.
- Fry the fish lightly (do not brown or over brown the fish). Just 3-4 minute on each side.
- Remove the fishes from the pan with a slotted spoon.
- Add more oil if requires.
- Once the oil is hot enough. temper it with nigella seeds.
- As soon as the seeds starts to crackle, add the ginger cumin paste.
- Lower the heat, saute the spice blend. Throw in some slitted green chillies.
- Add turmeric powder, pinch of red chilli powder, salt and sugar to taste.
- Saute nicely till the masala starts separating from the pan.
- Add two cups of warm water, cover the pan.
- Once the water starts boiling, carefully dip the fish in the gravy.
- Add the fried daler bodi / lentil wadi.
- Cook uncovered on low heat for 5 more minute.
- Add the chopped coriander leaves, give it a stir.
- Close the lid for 2 minute, and switch off the heat.
- Serve hot with steamed white rice.
Soak the cumin seeds around ¼ cup for an hour.
Wash, peel and chop the two inch fresh ginger.
Blend them together in mixer and store in the fridge.
For smaller quantities, you can use mortar and pestle too.