Updated: Dec 12, 2021
I had lunch with my Bengali friend the other day at an Indian restaurant. Unbeknownst to me at the time of booking, the restaurant has held a Michelin star since 2012 and deservedly so! He had once told me that he didn't like Doi Maach, one of Bengal's signature fish dishes so, during lunch I asked him why that was. His feeling was that it was because of the freshwater fish typically used in its preparation - flavourless and bony. Although I have never tasted a Doi Maach in Bengal, this I can appreciate, not being a fan of freshwater fish myself. So no freshwater fish in my version, obviously!
This time of year is ideal for this dish since, as I mentioned in Maacher Jhol, Dover sole, gurnard, John Dory and grey mullet are my suggested alternatives to the river fish that would traditionally be used, and all are available now.
I also asked my friend what exactly his relationship was to Minakshie DasGupta, the famous Bengali chef and restaurateur whose recipe was one (see below) of the inspirations behind this recipe. It came as no surprise to find that she wasn't his great aunt as he had previously told me. Instead she was his grandmother's first cousin (and I wouldn't be surprised if, next time I ask him, that changes again!): by my reckoning that makes her his first cousin twice-removed. Doesn't really matter, I thank her for the inspiration - I've been making this dish for years and the version I have settled on I look forward to be making for many more years to come.
This particular recipe began with inspiration from Keith Floyd's TV series and accompanying book, "Floyd's India". Over time, influences have come from books by Madhur Jaffrey (whose recipe comes from the DasGupta family), Atul Kochhar and, of course, Minakshie DasGupta herself. The end result is unquestionably a blend of all of these, but a blend I feel to retain authenticity and know to be delicious.
A subject that comes up frequently when cooking with yoghurt is the issue of curdling - it always has the propensity to do so. Minakshie DasGupta warns that the heat should be carefully controlled in the cooking of this dish so as to avoid curdling the yoghurt, whereas Atul Kochhar opines that curdled yoghurt is a characteristic of the dish. Madhur Jaffrey doesn't raise the issue at all and Keith Floyd, in his "cooking sketch" on the TV programme, offers helpful advice on how to prevent the yoghurt from curdling and then proceeds to curdle it (though the sauce in the elegantly-presented dish at the end of the sketch has a remarkably smooth gravy!). So far, I don't know what is correct. I try to avoid curdling the yoghurt but if it does, I just get on and enjoy eating what I've made.
As mentioned above there is a selection of fish that would work in this recipe, and it would not be countering tradition to use skin-on, bone-in steaks of a chosen fish. I mostly use fillets of Dover sole when making this dish, but here I have gone for skinned fillets of grey mullet.
This can be served with steamed or boiled basmati rice and perhaps a simple green vegetable side. I quite like to serve it with a dish that I call "Green Beans Panch Phoran", which I make with runner beans stir-fried with ginger in mustard oil and flavoured with a typical Bengali spice mix of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, nigella seeds, black mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds, the combination of which is known as "panch phoran", meaning "five spices". I doubt the bean dish is actually Bengali but flavoured as it is, if it were served to a Bengali, I'm quite confident he or she would think that its cook was.
Ingredients (serves 1-2)
1 small onion
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder (see note), or to taste
Salt, to taste
½ garlic clove and a 1cm piece of ginger pounded to a paste with a little salt
Mustard oil (see Maacher Jhol for note), and/or vegetable oil
Grey mullet fillets for 1-2 servings, skinned and cut into 1.5” chunks
75-100g full-fat Greek yoghurt, mixed with 25-50ml water, at room temperature
2 green cardamoms
1 blade of mace
1 cm stick of cinnamon
1 dried red chilli
1 dried bay leaf
2-4 green chillies (to taste), slit lengthways
Bengali garam masala (see note)
Put the onion, unpeeled, into a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Keep boiling it for 5 minutes then remove from the heat and cool it in cold running water. Peel the onion and coarsely chop it, then put it in a blender with sufficient water to blitz to a puree. Pass this puree through a sieve into a bowl and keep aside.
Marinate the fish pieces in ¼ tsp turmeric, ¼ tsp salt, the ginger and garlic and paste, a pinch of garam masala, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Leave in the fridge for 20 minutes or so, but bring back to room temperature before proceeding.
Heat the mustard oil as described in Maacher Jhol, or the vegetable oil, and when hot, crackle the cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon, red chilli and bay leaf. Reduce the heat a little before adding the onion puree (careful, it will spit), ¼ tsp turmeric and chilli powder. Cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes until the water has evaporated and the onion has started to fry. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit.
Away from the heat, gradually incorporate the yoghurt and water mixture. Return to a low heat and warm gently, allowing the gravy to slowly thicken to a creamy consistency without allowing the yoghurt to curdle.
Add the fish pieces and slit green chillies and simmer very gently, turning the fish pieces carefully as necessary, until the fish is cooked. Before serving, sprinkle with a pinch or two of garam masala.
Kashmiri chilli powder. As discussed in Rechad Spice Paste, Kashmiri chillies are relatively mild and impart a very red colour to a dish. Kashmiri chilli powder is available at Asian grocers and also online, for example, here. In their absence a blend of Cayenne pepper and unsmoked paprika is a convenient way of balancing chilli heat and red colour - a method employed extensively in Madhur Jaffrey's "Flavours of India", and other books of hers.
Bengali garam masala. You can use a shop-bought general-purpose garam masala but they are invariably poor quality and contain the cheaper, less aromatic spices. A far more pleasing experience is to be had by grinding your own and, for a Bengali garam masala, I use Atul Kochhar's (pp. 156) blend of equal quantities of cloves, green cardamoms and cinnamon plus some bay leaves, all ground in a spice or coffee grinder.
“Bangla Ranna, The Bengal Cookbook”, Minakshie DasGupta (1982), pp.104: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bagla-Ranna-Minakshie-Das-Gupta/dp/8174762051
“Flavours of India”, Madhur Jaffrey (1995), pp. 152-3: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Flavours-India-Madhur-Jaffrey/dp/0563370777
“Simple Indian”, Atul Kochhar (2004), pp. 43 and 156: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Indian-Tastes-Indias-Cuisine/dp/1844001512/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_img_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=V2J3TNWANR1ZMTN4MEPS
"Floyd's India", Keith Floyd (2001), pp. 124: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Floyds-India-Keith-Floyd/dp/0004140885
Kashmiri chilli powder, Spices of India, accessed 26 September 2019: https://www.spicesofindia.co.uk/cgi-bin/ss000001.pl?page=search&SS=kashmiri+chilli+powder&PR=-1&TB=O&ACTION.x=0&ACTION.y=0