Warning: descriptions of dismembered body parts ahead
Food shows featuring Kuala Lumpur and Penang often show Malay fish head soups and curries.
I have tried them. Didn't impress me. That's probably because I come from a culinary tradition which has elevated fish head, or machher mudo as we say in Bengali, based dishes to a fine art.
Countless joyous meals are spent happily chewing fish heads, sucking the soft brains (ghilu) and nibbling on the gills. As a kid we were told that having the fish's eye improves one's eye sight. Today the same elders tell you that fish heads increase cholesterol! Too late we are addicted to head.
In fact the first time I felt truly at home at Mumbai was when I went to Pali Market, bought a fish head, and made a daal with it in our first apartment. I knew that I no longer had to wait for a trip to my mother's at Calcutta to have my favourite dish.
There are two types of fish whose heads are particularly sought after by Bengalis. The first is that of Rui (Rohu or river carp) and its cousin, Kaatla. The other is that of Ilish (Hilisa). They both have their pros and cons. Both are river fish which Bengalis are partial to.
Rui, and more so Kaatla, heads are larger, fleshier and easier to navigate as the bones are fewer and bigger. A particular high here is sucking the sweetish brain which is as the finest Musrshidabad silk and playfully jumps around in your mouth. A 'happy meal' if there ever was one.
Ilish's head is a different kettle of fish. A dark and moody lover. It has a very delicate flavour. Poetic some would say. But it also comes with a treacherous armoury of sharp and tiny bones. If the Japnese Fugo fish requires certificates for the cook then only certified eaters should be allowed to risk their lives on Ilish heads. My suggestion would be to put it in a dish. Let its flavour spread into the rest of the dish. But don't try eating it. Unless you are an expert. I almost choked on it the other night.
Some popular Bengal fish head preparations are:
- mudi ghonto - fish head curry with garam masala, potatoes and firm rice
- Cabbage or bottle gourd sabzis (deep cooked with garam masala, turmeric, chilly powder) with fried fish heads added to them and tossed together
- Daal with fish head - my personal favourite (the picture below is of a daal with ilish head)
Here's how I make machher mudo diye daal (daal with fish head)
- Smear the fish head with a bit of salt, turmeric and chilly powder, fry and set aside
- Take a cup of moong daal and roast it on a pressure pan till it turns brownish
- Add twice the amount of water to it, a tea spoon of turmeric and salt and pressure cook it - 4 whistles and fifteen minutes on simmer
- Heat a teaspoon of oil in a saucepan, add some paanch phoran (a Bengali 5 spice mix)
- Once the p p splutters add two slit green chillies and bay leaves
- Once these change colour add the fried fish head from stage 1
- Stir a bit and add the boiled daal from stage 2
- Add half a tea spoon each of turmeric, chilly powder and jeera (cumin) and bit of sugar
- Let it begin to boil and bubble
- Reduce the flame, cover with a lid and reduce the flame. Let it slow cook for ten minutes as you want the flavour of the fish head to infuse into the daal
- Add some whole garam masala at the end if its a rui head. Skip this for the ilish though as that's more delicate and is best left au naturelle (pardon my French)
Have this with steamed rice, a twist of lime or pickle. Fried potatoes or fried fish (marinated slightly with a bit of turmeric, salt, jeera (cumin) and chilly powder) go well with this.
Gosh, need to get hold of some good fish head quickly