Updated: Dec 3, 2020
I know what you’re thinking... it’s that “Maacher” word again! It (or a relative of it) is the word for fish in some Indian languages, and as you know by now, I love Indian recipes for fish. But I’ve also come to love fish cooked with mustard, a stalwart in the Bengali culinary repertoire so, unsurprisingly, this concoction is inspired by a dish from Bengal.
It's a rather unusual way of cooking a species we find available on the market stall for much of the year: Dover sole. I have been baking Dover sole "en papillote" for a long time (once Dock showed me how to skin a Dover sole, the culinary floodgates were open!), varying the ingrerdients that accompany the fish, usually comprising some aromatic vegetables (spring onion, fennel, celery etc.), some herbs (parsley, mint, coriander, lemon thyme etc.), some spices (cumin, fresh chilli, star anise, ... etc.), and a splash of liquid (usually white wine or lemon or lime juice), along with a drizzle of olive or other oil, plus salt and pepper. This isn't healthy eating, dear Seafoodies, McDonald's is.
So, although I had long been aware of the inclination of Indian cooks to wrap pieces of fish in banana leaf and cook them in some way or another (steamed, baked or roasted mostly), it dawned upon me to steer my Dover sole en papillote direction-Bengal. What a triumph! I eat this dish very regularly.
Now, this will not be to everyone's taste. Mustard oil is pungent and also takes just a little bit of effort to source (see Doi Maach). Although I've never tried, I suspect you can make this with a more widely-available sunflower, vegetable or rapeseed oil. It's also quite a fiery dish, though there's an easy counteraction to that: use less chillies! However, there's a charming short passage in Bangla Ranna that advocates the chillies to be a necessary addition to the mustard paste to temper its bitterness. OK, but that's a new capability of the chilli from that which I was previously aware!
A fillet of gurnard would be a suitable alternative to Dover sole.
I've tried - but this is such a difficult dish to take an elegant photograph of. I will carry on trying to improve the photo. On my side is the fact that I eat it so often that opportunity knocks - but I do just wonder whether this might not be a photogenic dish?
Once again, we find the recipe for an authentic regional dish in Floyd's India. I think I originally developed my version from there, but I have certainly since referenced Bangla Ranna to find that I am on the right track. It seems the traditional method of cooking the fish parcels is in a steamer, and I have tried it that way. But the reality is that very few of us have a steamer large enough to prepare this dish effectively for more than one or two diners. I always bake the parcels in the oven, in exactly the way one would for anything cooked en papillote. There is no embarassment in this cooking method - Minakshie DasGupta offers it as one of the alternatives.
Only very recently did I bother with the banana leaves, I just used foil. However, having now made this dish using banana leaves, I have to concede that there is a subtle difference in the flavour of the finished dish, though not to such an extent as to deter me from making this in their absence. Banana leaves can be found in Asian grocers but they're a bit of a nuisance to cook with. First, you have to heat them (easiest in the oven although you might find you are guided to heat them over a naked flame) to make them malleable. Even then it's quite hard to use them as a wrapper without tearing them and thereby compromising the seal. The happy medium I have found is to wrap the fish in banana leaf and then wrap the resulting parcel in foil. Just use foil!
Ingredients (for 1-2 servings)
300g Dover sole per person, skinned and trimmed
Lemon or lime juice
Green chillies, sliced, quantity to taste
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds or 1 tsp each yellow and black mustard seeds, steeped in hot water for 10-20 minutes
2 garlic cloves, minced
1" cube ginger, grated
1 tsp chilli powder, or to taste
½ tsp sugar, optional or to taste
2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
Banana leaves and/or foil (see recipe above)
Marinate the fish in a sprinkling of turmeric, salt and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. Set aside for about 20 minutes and heat the oven to 220°C.
Drain the mustard seeds and pound them using a pestle and mortar along with the garlic, ginger, chilli powder, sugar, chopped green chillies then add just enough mustard oil to create a coarse paste.
For each fish lay out a square of banana leaf or foil and rub a little oil over it. Cover the fish on both sides with the spice paste, place in the centre, put a few sliced chillies on top and then wrap up into a well-sealed parcel.
Place the parcel(s) on a baking tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 3 minutes, then serve. Plain rice is a fine accompaniment.
“Bangla Ranna, The Bengal Cookbook”, Minakshie DasGupta (1982), pp. 117: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bagla-Ranna-Minakshie-Das-Gupta/dp/8174762051