After the morning cup of tea Amma; as my grandmother was fondly called by her grandchildren; would gather the cloth bags and make her way to the local market which was a short walk away. The two big white bags were for vegetables, the smaller khaki one was for fish or meat. Few hours later she would ride a rickshaw back home with the bags now heavy with an assortment of vegetables, fruits, and fish. Being a Bengali household the most anticipated purchase was the fish. Ma would eagerly empty the khaki bag on a big steel platter and examine the contents with gusto. On most occasions there would be the quintessential Rui or Rohu, the most commonly eaten fish in our house. And then there would be fishes of various sizes depending on what the market had to offer. Finger sized ones for chorchori, and palm sized ones for jhal. The bothi with its curved iron blade would be brought out. Amma would sit on a wooden piri on the floor and place the bothi in front. She would then proceed to clean and dress the fish. We kids were allowed to watch but only a safe distance away from the sharp bothi. Amma would hold the fish using both hands and skillfully move the silvery Rui across the bothi gliding its body against the blade to remove the scales. She would then gut the carcass and chop it into steaks with such dexterity that came only through years of practice.
Conversations at this time would occasionally turn towards desh er bari or Amma’s native place. Most grandmothers would narrate mythological tales to their grand children but Amma would regale us with stories of her childhood spent in desh er bari which now belonged to Bangladesh after India was partitioned. Her family had sailed in a big boat headed towards Kolkata along with some essential belongings that they could carry leaving behind most of their possessions and also Kalu the half blind dog that had become part of their family. This had happened a long time back, she was in her teens then, yet there was always a tinge of sadness in her voice, a palpable pain when she spoke about their loss. But what she liked sharing most was tales of happy days; her carefree childhood days. The grey of her hair sparkled and the lines and wrinkles on her face would light up when she delved in her memory and took us back in time. To us this fantastic land and its stories were nothing short of mythology. In desh er bari every house had a pond, sometimes two, teeming with fishes. The houses would be surrounded by large stretches of land where a variety of fruit trees grew. After school activities included swimming in the pond or catching fish. To us city kids her childhood seemed straight out of a story book.
“The fish curry that my mother made on most days was simple yet so delicious. I can still feel the taste on my tongue” is how she would nostalgically describe the jhol her mother made with minimum use of spices from the fresh catch. We would picture in our mind our great grandmother whom we had never seen stirring a big wok of jhol over a hot clay oven. She would reminisce about the taste of fresh caught fish and lament over the fact that we would never get to enjoy those simple pleasures of life that she did. By this time she would have finished processing the fish. The fish pieces would then be washed clean under the tap, while she kept an eye out for the crows that would noisily swoop in from the nearby mango tree attracted by the emanating fish smell. On most days Ma would make a patla jhol (soupy curry) with the Rui. In winter bori (dried lentil nuggets) and vegetables like eggplant or florets of cauliflower were added to the jhol. The fish, bori, and the vegetables together worked their magic in turning this simple, everyday preparation into something delicious that our taste buds never got tired of.
Every family has their own recipe for patla jhol, a staple bong food that is akin to the feeling of being at home, nothing frilly, just simple like daal chawal. Some days ago while driving back home in the evening I had a sudden craving for the same jhol that Ma made. I made a quick detour to the local Asian grocery store and picked up a good sized Rockfish. On a whim I decided to get the fish as is without having its innards removed and cleaned. Back at home I emptied the fish from the plastic bag and brought out a long bladed knife and proceeded to remove the scales. Before I knew it, I had created a mess with scales flying in all directions. Amma had made the whole process seem so easy breezy, it was not! Finally after some concerted effort I managed to finish the job. As the jhol simmered over the blue flames; I did a quick taste. Yes! This is exactly what I was craving for.
The bothi has been replaced by the knife, the Rui by the Rockfish yet the essence of the jhol still remains the same, the warm familiar feeling of home even in far off places.
This if how my Ma makes the simple fish curry:
What you need:
Fish- any fresh water fish of your liking
Vegetables- potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower
Bori or dried lentil nuggets (omit if you don’t have any)
Coriander-cumin powder (1:1) (I add about 11/2 heaped tbs for 1 pound of fish)
Nigella seeds (kalonji, kalo jeera) for tempering
Potatoes in wedges, eggplants in big chunks, and cauliflowers in medium sized florets. Eggplant and cauliflower can be omitted but potatoes are a must. No fish curry in our house is ever complete without them.
Rub the fish pieces with turmeric and salt. Keep them aside for about 15 mins.
Heat oil in a pan and pan fry the fish pieces till they are slightly brown. Remove and keep aside. Fry the boris till brown and sauté the potatoes and the vegetables till they get some color. Remove and keep aside.
Add some oil to the pan. When the oil gets hot temper with nigella seeds. Add the coriander cumin powder and green chillis slit in the middle. As the masala gets cooked add turmeric and adjust salt. Add a cup of water and let it simmer. Now add the vegetables and bori. After the potato is half cooked add the fish pieces and simmer. Adjust the consistency of the curry by adding more water. When done garnish with chopped cilantro.
This simple fish curry is best enjoyed with plain rice. I also like to squeeze in a dash of lime for more flavor.
I am sending this entry to the blog event “Of Chalks and Chopsticks — 2nd Edition” the brain child of Aqua and hosted by the talented Bong Mom.