Have I mentioned that we Bengalis live and die for fish? We love fish in all shapes and sizes, flavours and colours. We are an adaptive lot: no matter which city in the world, there is bound to be a handful of Bengalis in the woodworks somewhere, trying to be happy despite the lack of fresh pheesh. We complain about it, but we tough it out, going about our daily business with the air of martyrs.
For a Bengali, a meal without pheesh is a meal not worth having. We like our maach bhat that’s fish and rice, at least once every day. And when there is a son-in-law or jamai visiting, then maach bhat will happen twice a day, for lunch and dinner. Until the son-in-law feels like he cannot look at a fish ever again. Especially a son-in-law whose only experience of fish as a child was frozen fish fingers that his mother baked up once in a while in the oven. That’s my husband.
But actually this Bengali is lucky because the husband is nevertheless very fond of fish. So when I cook some once a week or twice, meal times are greeted with much happiness. Except when I present him with steak-cut fish, the most favourite cut for a Bengali where the fish is cut transversely, preserving every bone in its singular glory. A Bengali loves to savour the fish slowly, dissecting the fish tenderly on the plate with her fingers, pulling out each bone one by one. As each morsel of fish is rendered boneless, she reverently puts it into her mouth.
My husband just stares at the fish in horror and then tries to replicate my efforts with his fork and knife. Now he has learned that when it comes to eating fish, the Bengalis have the best tool in the world, the fingers. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a long, thin bone poke you in the finger than your throat? Which reminds me that I had to patiently explain to my in-laws that if death by fish bone was such a health hazard as some people believe it to be, then there wouldn’t be any Bengalis left in this world. I remember eating fish, bones and all since I could walk on my own. I survived, as did every Bengali I know.
We like our pheesh in various ways, fried, breaded, braised, steamed, stewed and curried. Some preps are super easy, some a trifle more complicated. This one is of the former kind, and to die for! It is refreshing and lively, bursting with flavours of the spring. It is also super-fast to boot. The inspiration for it is a fish stew that my mother used to make with fresh tomatoes and coriander. The fish was different, sometimes small tilapia, sometimes koi, kept alive in a pot of water in the pantry until my mother was ready to cook with them. I used some frozen fish, but the end result was delicious too.
RECIPE: Baked fish with fresh tomatoes, chili and herbs
4 fillets of any white fish, weighing 375 gms (I used MSC certified organic ocean perch)
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large ripe tomato, diced
A bunch of fresh coriander or parsley, chopped
2 tsp oil (I used cold-pressed sunflower oil)
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 fresh red chilli pepper, cut into 2-3 pieces (optional)
- Oil a large glass baking dish and arrange the fish on it.
- Separate out the onion layers and sprinkle on the fish
- Sprinkle the tomato and coriander
- Tuck the chilli in between
- Whisk the oil, salt and turmeric and pour over everything
- Toss everything gently with your fingers until mixed
- Cover the dish with aluminium foil as tightly as you can
- Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Celsius
- Insert the baking dish into the oven and bake for 10 minutes or until the fish turns opaque and the juices around the fish turn white like in the title picture. Do not overcook! The tomatoes will still retain their fresh taste. The fish will be tender and juicy.
My son loved it, so did we!