Happy New Year to all my lovely Where The Food Is readers! After a pretty quiet few weeks, during which I ate far too much and blogged rather too rarely, the blog is back with a new country and a cracking new recipe to go with it. It’s finally the turn of long-neglected Bangladesh, and I couldn’t have asked for a better dish to kick off 2012. Shorshe maach, a fiery fish and mustard curry, is a wonderful antidote to the mince-pie laden, butter-drizzled gluttony of the past few weeks. It’s light on calories but packs a real flavour punch thanks to a few secret ingredients.
Bangladeshi cuisine has a fair bit in common with that of nearby India and Pakistan. After all, the three countries have tons of historical and cultural links. So although there is a lot of culinary variation on the Indian subcontinent, its inhabitants share a common love of the spicy, saucy dishes that are today in the West (perhaps simplistically) called curries. Think mounds of fragrant turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardomom and chilli.
But there are also a few things that really set Bangladeshi food apart. For one thing, Bengalis (the Bengali ethnic group spills over into neighbouring India but is most concentrated in Bangladesh) prefer to get most of their protein from fish. Of all the fish that swim in the warm waters off the country’s coastline, Ilish (also called Hilsa) is most prized, and considered most iconically Bangladeshi. That some Bangladeshis call it an “addiction”, others call it the country’s “most cherished treasure” and yet others call it “the queen among all fishes” should give you some indication of its status. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to it, where 2,761 followers have thus far come together simply to proclaim Ilish “the most delicious fish in the entire universe”!
Then there’s the love of mustard in all its forms – mustard seeds, mustard paste, mustard oil. So If you’re being treated to a mustard and fish curry anywhere in the world, chances are you’re eating Bengali. Finally, you won’t find many of the naans, chapatis, dosas or other baked goods that Indians and Pakistanis love so much in this little country. No, it’s pretty much basmati rice all the way, the fluffy grains proving the perfect way to soak up all that bracing, gloopy goodness.
I had a lot of fun making this dish, which I very slightly adapted from the excellent recipe found here. A few interesting cooking methods and ingredients made it new and exciting. I had never heard of “onion seeds” before, but it turns out I recognized them as a common topping for Indian breads the minute I took a sniff. They don’t actually come from the allium (onion) family, but add a lovely crunch and subtle oniony flavour to anything you use them on. Look out for these little black matte kernels in your local South Asian supermarket, where they might also be called “kalonji” or “kalo jira”.
While you’re there, pick up some mustard oil if you can find it. I was not as lucky, sadly. Apparently there is some controversy as to the safety of mustard oil, although my 3rd grade knowledge of chemistry leaves me unable to understand exactly why. In the US and the EU, mustard oil can only be sold if labeled “for external use only”—a warning lots of top restaurants apparently ignore with no visible ill affects. I would have cooked with it if I could have found it, but had to make do with sunflower oil instead. The end result was still brimming with mustard flavour thanks to the handfuls of mustards seeds I chucked in!
The final secret ingredient was unripe or green mango – and I’m proud to say your usually fruit-phobic correspondent ate it with aplomb! More on the taste later, but for now make sure you include it on your shopping list…
What Did I Need?
4 fish steaks (tilapia, carp or ilish are particularly authentic)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 ½ tsp chilli powder
salt, to taste
a large pinch of sugar
sunflower oil, for frying
50g yellow mustard seeds
4 fresh chillies, slit lengthways (non-chilliheads should remove the seeds!)
6 tbsp mustard oil (or, if unavailable, 6 additional tbsp sunflower oil)
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tsp onion seeds
½ unripe mango, sliced
½ tsp ground cumin
a few sprigs fresh coriander, chopped
How Did I Do It?
1. Wash the fish and pat dry. Rub half the turmeric, half the chilli powder and a pinch of salt on both sides of the fish.
2. Heat a little oil in a wok and fry the fish steaks one at a time until crisp and golden-brown. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside.
3. Soak the mustard seeds in ¼ cup of water for 30 minutes. Place 2 chillies, 3 tablespoons of mustard (or sunflower ) oil and the soaked mustard seeds in a small blender. Blend until you have a smooth paste. Set aside.
4. Put the tomatoes in a food processor or blender and process briefly. Set aside.
5. Heat the remaining mustard (or sunflower) oil in a pan and add onion seeds. Once they begin to crackle, add the remaining fresh chillies and mustard paste. Cook for 5–6 minutes over a low heat.
6. Add the tomatoes, the remaining turmeric and chilli powder and a pinch of sugar. Cook for 3–4 minutes.
7. Add the sliced mango. Add enough water to cover and allow it to simmer for 6-7 minutes. Add the fried fish and cook for a further 5–6 minutes, stirring carefully to avoid breaking up the fish. Season to taste.
8. Turn off the heat and add ground cumin and chopped fresh coriander.
9. Serve with rice.
So How Did It Taste?
We’ll start with a quote from Joe to give you some idea:
“I think this might be the best curry you’ve ever cooked.”
I reminded him that he had said the same thing about my Indian dal only a few weeks ago and that this glowing praise was possibly due more to his love affair with South Asian cooking than with any particular improvement in my cooking skills. Three empty plates later, though, I was almost ready to believe him!
I must admit that I put away a good few plates myself. I sometimes get a little tired of the way all masala-scented dishes seem to muddle into one after a few too many take-away curries, but this one really is unique. I loved the fresh, clean flavours—the mustard has an almost wasabi-like sharpness to it, but with the lingering heat of chilli. Four seedless chillies made for a nice medium level of spice, but you might want to be braver and keep the seeds in, or go easy on yourself and cut down to two or three.
And I even liked the mangoes, where cooked fruit is usually a no-go for me. Because they’re unripe, they don’t make the end result too sugary or mushy. Instead, they round the dish out, adding a little sweetness and texture.
If you’re like me, your tastebuds will have been longing for a little something different after one too many dry turkey sandwiches. Perhaps this is just the kick up the bum they need!