Naked fish… Bengali styled pan seared pomfret

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I just have some blackberry pics for this post as I wasn’t planning to blog about this when I fried the pomfret on Saturday afternoon.

Then epiphany happened as I began lunch. A post had to follow. So here you go. Mangled photos and all.

Without getting into the seafood versus freshwater fish debate, I would definitely say that the flagship fish of Mumbai, pomfret, is a fish that I find to be over-rated. It definitely does not, with apologies to Heineken, reach parts which the Bengali Holy Grail of Ilish (Hilsa) does.

And yet, my smile broadened as I had my lunch of bhaat, mushuri daal and pomfret bhaaja (fry) on Saturday.

The pomfret was juicy, the flavours teased and tickled you, the texture gave you pleasure in a way other pomfrets rarely did.

What worked for me in yesterday’s pomfret fry was its sheer simplicity…so different from most pomfrets dishes that I have come across. This was a light fry. Fried with just the right amount of TLC needed to let the fish come into its own.

The thing with pomfret, I realised, is that you can’t bully it. It will love you back only if you let it be. Try to impose your will on it and the pomfret will just close itself to you.

Most restaurant pomfrets that I have had tend to be overcooked. Specially the Malvani restaurants and their rava (semolina) batter coated deep fried pomfrets. If a place does the fry well you could still hope for some soft fish below the crust. Or else its money wasted.

Nor do the pomfret curries of Malvani restaurants work for me where the fish is boiled beyond recognition. Or curries in Mangalorean restaurant dishes where the fish is camouflaged under extreme masalas.

The same with the much lauded patrani machhis of Parsi. In most cases the banana leaf wrapped fish is steamed too much and the fish and the green coriander coconut chutney don’t really combine together. I have heard Parsis say “it’s all about the chutney”. Except in rare cases such as the Patrani Machhi we have ordered from Kurush of Dalal Enterprises and a Godiwala bhonu on a good days, the pomfret in patranis are usually chunky and inert.

Patrani Machhi is very different from the Bengali banana leaf steamed equivalent, ilish paturi. An ilish paturi becomes acceptable to Bengali only when the mustard based paste and the fish combine together.  Not “all about the chutney” at all. It is about synthesis. And that’s what the cook strives for.

I am happy to be proved wrong by any Parsi, Mangalorean or Goan/ Konkani person who invites me over home to prove that home cooked fish is different from what is doled out in their restaurants. After all that is the case between fish cooked in Bengali houses versus the often grotesque fish curries served in Bengali restaurants.

The other problem  with pomfret is that is probably the most expensive local fish around in Mumbai. Buying it at wet fish markets adds to the headache as you have to bargain by ‘pair” without any recognition of weight.

I’d not been to the fish market in a while. So I checked at the local Pali Market cold storages for fish. There’s only that much chicken one can eat. And red meat is hardly politically correct these days.

I looked for pomfret in Pali Market but most places only had that Vietnamese Basa. Jude’s had rawas too. Mark’s had surmai. And then I suddenly found out that Meghna Cold Storage had pomfret at 1,000 Rs a kilo. So two largish ones for Rs 500. And the quality was very good. Don’t tell me about Pesca Fresh. We don’t lead the sort of lives where we put everything on hold waiting for people to deliver fish at their convenience.

I planned to do a Bengali styled fried fish with the pomfret. Covered with a light masala…turmeric powder, a touch of red chilli powder…not too much, salt of course. And, possibly a deviation from what Bong grannies would do, cumin or jeera powder. I like the flavour that jeera ads. Not used in traditional maachh bhaajas I think. The proportion of turmeric: cumin: chilli is 3:2:1 in my case.

And one more thing, You have to use your hands to mix the spices on the fish. We are talking of TLC remember? A cold spoon won’t work. You can’t be squeamish or distant if you want the magic to happen.

There is another deviation from the traditional Bengali styled fried fish in what I did. To use a term which recently evoked much mirth in the political arena, it’s in our DNA for fish to be fried till its ‘korkore’ or crisp. I have grown up on fish fried to the extent where the skin of the fish become crinkled and crisp. Anything less than that does not have enough spine to pass muster in traditional Bengali kitchens.

I used more of a ‘pan sear’ technique instead of the usual deep frying. This you tube video will give you an idea of what I did.

Add oil to a flat bottomed pan. We use a non stick pan and canola oil at home. Heat the oil. Place the fish on the flat surface of the pan over the heated oil. Let it cook a bit and then gently turn the fish over. The pomfret is not dunked into oil here unlike in a deep fry. Pomfret is more 3 dimensional than the flat fillet in the video so you would touch the side edges of the fish to the pan’s surface too.

Another thing which I do which is different from the video is that I gently nudge the fish on top with a spatula. You hear a slight sizzle from the pan if you do this and the fish cooks faster and possibly absorbs less oil.

Chances are that you can’t skimp on the oil. The surface of the pan will have to be greased properly else the fish will break while frying. But all the oil won’t be absorbed so you can take out the fish and throw out the excess oil. I am told that re-using oil is not a good practice.

So there you have, pomfret fried just right, in its full majesty…best paired with rice and daal. Never rotis.

“Naked is the way to go!’ as Anurag Mehrotra said when I put up the picture of the fish on facebook.

Hence, the title.

PS: Talking of Bengalis, it was so good to see Dada’s angsty face in the field during the recent IPL matches. Finally felt like cricket as we knew it. Go Pune Warriors. We are with you.

Sourav Ganguly

It was Easter today and happy Easter to all of you and thanks to Neha and Josh of Silver Spoon Chef for the basket of delectable Easter goodies. Loved the stuff. Thank you both.

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And talking of fish, thanks Lenny and Archana of Gostana for the great home made fish pickle. Saved many a dull meal for me. You guys should retail it. It’s really good.

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