Monday, 30th October 2017

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Fish fiesta

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By It's makeover time for Bengal's much-loved piscine friends, says Rahul Verma Photographs by Rashbehari Das
  • Published 12.02.12
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In Rome, you may or may not do as the Romans do, but in Bengal, increasingly, they are doing it the way the Bengalis don’t. I am referring to fish. For many years, fish in Bengal meant a plump piece of rohu or hilsa smothered in a delicious mustard and chilli sauce. But like so many things in Bengal, the fish too is going for a revamp.

A recent visit to Calcutta opened my eyes. I had gone to Bohemian, the restaurant in Ballygunge that’s creating quite a furore. Chef Joy Banerjee, who runs the restaurant along with a home delivery outlet called Chef Joy’s Deli, has created an unusual menu, with dishes that are not quite fusion, but certainly most innovative.

With fish, the chef has let his creative juices flow. I ate an excellent pabda, the way I’ve never eaten it before. I may be lynched for this (and I have happily triggered angry debates in Bengali drawing rooms on this) but I have always believed that the pabda is a bit like paneer. I find its taste incredibly bland, and think that like paneer, it thrives by borrowing the flavours of whatever you cook it with.

But in this dish, the pabda had surpassed itself. The chef had marinated a fillet with salt, kashundi, green chilli paste, turmeric powder and a little mustard oil. Then he took a bunch of long beans (sautéed with onion seeds) and wrapped the pabda fillet around it. This went into a stew delicately flavoured with baby onions, baby spinach and cherry tomatoes.

Bacon-stuffed Tilapia

Clearly, the chef has been experimenting with various kinds of flavours and methods. And from what I can tell, he is still evolving his creations. Some of the dishes he prepared for us are not on the menu but he intends to add them in the near future.

Most kinds of fish (barring the poor pabda) have their own distinctive tastes but you can enhance them with all kinds of strong flavours — from the traditional mustard with its heady pungency to even the smoky taste of bacon. The chef, for instance, does a mean tilapia by stuffing it with bacon, and then baking it after adding ginger and fennel to it.

But not every dish has to be a mélange of surprising flavours. Sometimes, the chef points out, you can add a new dimension to a fish by strengthening and tweaking the ingredients that the fish is usually cooked with.

Take his parse, which he essentially flavours with panchphoron — the Bengali five-spice mix that fish is generally cooked with at home — and green chillies. He marinades the fish fillets with lime juice, chilli paste, ginger juice and panchphoron. He covers this with a batter of egg, corn flour, flour, chilli paste, some more panchphoron powder and lime juice and then grills it. The sauce is prepared with green chillies, onion, garlic, spinach puree, coriander paste and cream. The grilled fish is presented with the chilli paste and preserved lemon rice.

I always like something out of the ordinary — so I enjoyed chef Joy’s creations, especially his bekti cooked with berries . Some of my friends in Calcutta go a little pale when they see the much loved fish being given a makeover. But open your mind, I say to them: you have nothing to lose but your chains.       

Grilled bekti with Bengal berry sauce
(serves 2-3)

• 6 pieces bekti fillet (cut into 2”x2”x1”)  • 45g flour • 1 egg l20g green chilli paste
 • 30g coriander powder  • 15g cumin powder  • 45g Bengal berry (topa kul) pickle  • 15g chopped onion  • 10g chopped garlic • 10g tamarind pulp • 50ml cooking cream

Method:

Soak the pickle in warm water. Marinate the fish with lime juice, flour, egg, 1/3rd of the cumin and coriander powder, salt and a bit of the chilli paste. Set aside for 10-15 minutes. Grill the fish in a non-stick pan. Keep warm. Squash the berries in the pickle to de-seed them. Now prepare the sauce by heating oil in a pan. Temper with half of the crushed coriander and cumin seeds. Add the chopped onion and garlic, sauté till transparent.

Add fish stock and the berry pickle, mix well to combine. Simmer gently. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook. Check for seasoning. Arrange the grilled fish on a serving platter and pour the sauce over the fish. Serve with steamed rice and stir-fried greens.