Tel Koi – the simplest and the classiest Bengali fish recipe. Rich, spicy, delightfully flavorful and yes without onions, garlic and tomatoes. Centuries on, and these three trio are still struggling to find their permanent place in Bengali culinary stage. Koi maach is a winter special and this recipe of tel koi is the simplest, ridiculously easiest and an elegant dish reserved for special occasions. An earthy base of ginger and fresh cumin paste, hint of peppery flavour from nigella , dash of occasional spiciness that comes from mulled green chillies, stewed in a mustard oil broth is an exemplary story from Bengal’s rich culinary heritage , how simplest of flavours can weave such magical notes. And these climbing perch has climbed up really well up the ladder of culinary scene of Bengal, and a much sought after dish.
Decades back when we moved to Kolkata, the little world of fish opens its gates to wide arena of fresh water small fishes (which Bongs fondly called “choto maach” known for its numerous varieties, and each one taste so different from the others, cooked differently with recipes galore and yes these are seasonal just like the seasonal vegetables.
The names like tangda (how to make tangra maach) ,pabda (pabda macher jhol), puti, parshe, mouralla, koi does not evokes any nostalgia nor any forlorn memories but they hooked me to their eternal sweet taste, some mingles gladly with spring onions, some has undying love for potatoes, others seems to be so happy with veggies like eggplants, cauliflowers, these small fishes always brings multitude of interesting dishes to the dining table which every Bong love to cherish.
There are few fish markets in Kolkata where all sorts of fishes are available perennially, an early morning trip to such market, like Gariahat fish market will give you enough details as how a fish market looks and smells like.
Rows and rows of fish mongers with their sharpened boti (knife like) sat high on a platform with piles of day’s freshest catch yelled at every prospective buyer for bouni (day’s first sell), and by the time you completed the daily routine of fish browsing, the big fat fish that you have spot marked earlier, will be found lying happily in someone’s else’s macher jhola (bag exclusive for buying fish). [lesson learnt : always reserve your bounty before moving ahead] 😀
Once stepped in any fish market, you can not ignore the big pot-bellied cats who roamed freely, open-mouthed and literally thrives on the over enthusiast live fishes which are usually small in sizes and perfect for the cats to gobble them.
Unfortunately, these small fresh sweet water fishes are gradually becoming rarer in the market, and on many occasions I could not lay my hand on koi mach (climbling perch) and not to be confused with Japanese koi fish. So when I found the frozen pack of koi maach in one of my neighborhood Bangladeshi stores in US, I could not be happier, We greedily bought the largest pack available in the stores.
Koi mach usually made their appearances in the winter fish market in Kolkata and as I said before, these small fishes can be prepared in many ways, like with cabbage, sometimes stewed with potatoes and cauliflower, but the most celebrated dish is “Tel Koi”, with strong and overpowering flavour of mustard oil and lightly tempered with kalo jeera and green chillies, the recipe is unassumingly simple, flavoured with just ginger and cumin.
The richness of mustard oil makes tel koi more delectable, so please do try it with mustard oil only, it is essential and integral to this dish.
- Koi maach (climbing perch fish) : 12
- Green chillies : 4-5
- Ginger Paste : 1 tbsp
- Cumin powder : 2 tbsp
- Turmeric powder : 1 tsp
- Red chilli powder : ¼ tsp or optional
- Nigella / kalonji / kalo jeera : 1 tsp
- Mustard oil : 2-3 tbsp
- Salt and sugar to taste
- Cilantro : few twigs
- Wash and clean the koi mach and rub it with salt and turmeric powder. Leave it aside for 15 minutes.
- Take a flat-bottomed pan and heat one tablespoon of mustard oil till its smoking point and carefully drop the fishes in hot oil and lightly fry them for couple of minutes.
- Fry all the fishes one by one and remove it from the pan.
- Add more oil if requires, heat it slightly and temper the oil with kalo jeera / nigella /kalonji and slitted green chillies.
- Make a paste of ginger and cumin powder with little water and add this to the tempered oil.
- Saute the ginger and cumin paste for a while and add the turmeric and red chill powder. Fy the spices little longer on slow heat, add the salt and sugar to it.
- Add enough water (around 1 + cup) to just cover all the fishes and place the fishes in the pan and simmer on low heat till the gravy thickens little.
- Garnish with fresh twigs of cilantro and serve hot with steamed rice.
Have happy week ahead