Fish is an integral part of the Bengali diet, I have told you that already. What I haven’t told you yet is that fish is an essential part of a Bengali wedding, banquet, birthday meal, party, and even funeral! We do not celebrate or mourn without fish. Which leads to some very interesting social situations. For example, when a Bengali man or woman wants to marry someone from the southern part of the country. In the South, wedding banquets are, more often than not, vegetarian by religious mandate. To serve a fish curry is akin to heresy, blasphemy and whatever else you might wish to call it. So the Bengali bride or groom’s family mourn and weep and wring their hands. What to do? In this modern day and age, you cannot cancel a wedding just because the other party is from a different culture and will not consider making an exception for fish. And yet having a totally fish-less wedding is a very, very bad omen according to Bengali belief.
For a Bengali, fish is the sign of good luck, of prosperity and most importantly, fertility. So are you now telling me that we cannot wish the about-to-be-married couple any of the above?? The father of the bride/groom sputters. The mother meanwhile, in case you are wondering, is praying to her goddess and hitting her forehead on the cold, hard floor in penance for all those sins, real and imagined, that she is being punished for.
But finally, a compromise is found, thanks to a wise and pragmatic uncle/aunt. There shall be two wedding banquets, he/she says. The one in the evening, let’s call it the official one so as not to offend our South-Indian wedding guests and soon to be relatives, will be vegetarian. But we will have another one during the day. Wink, wink! Yes, we shall have fish fry, and chilli fish, chicken korma and lamb kebabs, everything that you wish to have, my dears. But most importantly, we shall have maacher kalia, the queen of all fish curries without which no banquet can hold its head high!
The Bengalis are relieved and happy. They resume the wedding preparations with renewed vigour and a spring in their step. The mother makes a mental note to tell the cook to prepare the kalia exactly as her mother/mother-in-law used to. That would be nice indeed, fat pieces of fish smothered in a rich gravy of slow-cooked and gently caramelised onions, garlic and ginger. Her mouth waters in anticipation.
Now I do have a recipe from my mother for this dish. After you have cooked it the traditional way, which involves a very important step of frying your fish first in plenty of oil, your house will smell of fish for days. And if you live in an apartment, it will smell like fish for weeks. What’s wrong with that? exclaims our hundred-percent Bengali. But me, I prefer not to smell fish when I am not eating it, you know what I mean? So I came up with a way to get around the problem, without compromising on the taste. Read on to find out…
The Minimalist Indian Grilled Fish Kalia
8 fillets of a meaty, rich fish like salmon (each of those fillets were 125 gms each)
2 tbsp oil
4-5 green cardamom pods, cracked
1 small piece of cinnamon (not longer than your little finger)
3 cups of chopped onions
2 tbsp grated ginger
1 tbsp grated garlic
2 medium tomatoes finely chopped
1+1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder or 2 tsp sweet red paprika (if you don’t like spicy food)
1 + 1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
- Turn on your broiler or fire up that grill.
- In a large flat glass baking dish add the fish and massage in the following – 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp turmeric and 2 tsp oil.
- Broil until the fish is nicely seared. You don’t have to cook the fish through. Remove and keep aside, lightly covered with aluminium foil.
- Preheat your oven to 200 Celsius.
- Heat the rest of the oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat on the stove top.
- Add the cinnamon and cardamom and fry until you get their aroma, nice and strong.
- Add the onions and sauté over medium low heat until they soften and turn pink. Add the rest of the salt, and the sugar. Continue browning the onions, the sugar will help the process. Be careful not to have the heat too high, else the onions will turn black and bitter. If your heat is under control, you can do other things in the kitchen, just stir the onions occasionally.
- When the onions are beginning to turn nicely brown, add the garlic, ginger and stir well.
- After a few seconds, make a slurry of the spice powders with some water and add it.
- Sauté for a minute and then add the tomatoes. Mix well.
- Now you need patience! Let the mixture cook over medium low heat till the onions get more brown, the tomatoes lose their water and turn into a caramelized puree and the spices blend and brown together into a cohesive mass that will start glistening with oil on the surface. This is called preparing the masala. Have the heat too low and your masala will simply boil for a long time and not develop the depth of flavour that controlled caramelisation brings. Have the heat too high and things will burn and stick and ruin your curry. By the way, if you find things sticking to the bottom of the pan, just add a splash of oil.
- Once the oil starts glistening on the surface of your masala, add a cup or two of water, depending on how saucy your want your end product to be. Mix well.
- Check the seasoning. A spicy, rich sauce like this needs to be robustly seasoned.
- Now pour the entire contents of the pan over the fish (very carefully so that you don’t get splashed!) in your baking dish and cover with aluminium foil or an oven-proof cover. A practical way to do this is to use a ladle to make the transfer.
- Let simmer in the oven for at least twenty minutes or until you are ready to eat. The more you let this curry simmer, the better it will taste. Leftovers taste even better the next day, so it is a great make-ahead dish as well. If the dish looks too dry, you can always adjust with a bit of hot water. Just stir it in carefully, so as not to break the fish.
- Serve hot with plenty of basmati rice or another grain of your choice.
- Enjoy like my friend Purna and her husband did the other day!
Note: The tomatoes are a modification. The original recipe does not call for tomatoes. But I like the slight tanginess that cuts through the richness.