In a Bengali household, a fish dish is sine qua non, absolutely essential. Cooking up a fish stew, or macher torkari is an obeisance to the household gods. It signifies care, a discerning palate, contentment with one’s lot, all contained in a bowlful of goodness. The reigning hands that cook feel only a little pride when this stew is on the family table and everyone is sighing in anticipation. For, to give way to too much pride would be un-Bengali to the extreme!
We Bengalis come from a land of broad rivers. Our ancestors recognized a good thing when they saw it. The land was fertile, the rivers full of fish. The rich delta of the mighty Ganges ensured that the 4000 year old civilization flourished.
Different varieties of fish have as many types of preparations. Generally though, for an everyday curry, the carp reigns supreme in my home. Called ‘Rui’, this fish is elevated in the stew, from its possibly humdrum avatar to one that offers succor and hope that all is well with the world. When teamed with steamed basmati rice, I don’t think there’s much else needed.
Once I’ve cleaned the fish, I apply liberal amounts of the yellow miracle spice – turmeric. I throw in some salt as well. The fish pieces sit in their golden bath for a while. In a wok, I splash some aromatic mustard oil. Yes, no other will do. The oil smokes, releasing its aroma, and you know it’s time to create. Sliding the fish into the hot oil requires a bit of finesse – you work your way using the sides of the wok. This way, the hot oil doesn’t splash up.
Once the fish has been golden-fried, I line up the ingredients to cook the stew. I make a paste of ginger, I lay out the turmeric, chilli powder, coriander powder and salt. I cut up a red-burst tomato. In the same wok with the leftover oil, I add a few black nigella seeds, a bay leaf and three pods of green cardamom. In goes the chopped tomato. Then the ginger paste. When their fusion releases sweetly pungent notes, I know it’s time to take the next step.
Half a teaspoon of turmeric, chilli powder and coriander powder each, a pinch of sugar, and salt to taste. All this glides into the melange in the wok. I add a cup of hot water. When it boils up, I add the fish pieces and lower the heat. This lets the flavourful sauce seep into the fish. After a minute and half, I know it’s done.
I ladle it lovingly into the serving dish where it awaits my hungry family