Do you add yogurt or curd to fish curries? We Bengalis do. My doi shorshe pabda curry recipe

My doi shorshe pabda with rice
Don't know if I can call this an innovation
Not sure if others make it

Do all Bengalis love fish?

'Dear auto correct, it is pabda. Why would I want to cook a panda? #ABengaliWillGetIt''

This Facebook status update of mine evoked quite a few laughs on Facebook yesterday. 

Pabda, for the uninitiated, is a species freshwater catfish that is considered to be a delicacy among us Bengalis.

I am not a big fan of it.

Here's a fun fact: Not all Bengalis love fish.

Big fish

I know of quite a few Bengalis, specially men starting with my brother and my mesho (maternal uncle), who are not fond of fish. We like fried fish at the most or more regal dishes like kaalia. The latter is an onion based curry usually had on weddings and on special occasions. Within fish, many of us prefer kaata bora maach ( cut pieces of big fish) such as rohu, katla, bhetki and of course ilish or Hilsa. To start with, these have fewer bones. Except the hilsa of course.

Small fish

At the risk of sounding sexist, I have seen that it is generally women, mothers and aunts and grannies, who are more fond of chhoto (small) fish, of which pabda is one. These, apart from the pabda, tend to be more bony. They often have a more distinctive smell than the boro maachh.

My observation is based on what I have seen among my social circle. I am not generalising for the entire Bengali community so please do not burn buses or march to the Brigade Grounds if you don't agree with what I said.

Mixed marriages: A seafood lover takes to freshwater fish

Interestingly, my wife, who is a Parsi, loves chhoto maach too. Parsis love fish but they are fond of seafood more than the freshwater fish that we Bengalis dote on. 

My mom and my granny offered K some chhoto maachh the first time I took her to Kolkata. She took to these and now loves her parshe and pabda and tyangra. This made my family even more accepting of her as they felt there was someone they could finally cook these fish for. She likes our freshwater fish a lot more that I do!

Over the years I too have broadened my horizon of fish but I can't say that I am very fond of these chhoto fish.

Tales from the fish market

I went to the Khar Station Fish Market this Saturday after K goaded me to do so for a while. I went to Poonam and Sangeeta's stall there and picked up katla, rawas (Indian salmon), surmai (king fish), bangda (mackerel)  and a red snapper. 

I was about to pay up when I saw some pabda and decided to buy some for K. I bought three. Two for her and one for me. She loves it a lot more than I do.

This is the pabda that I got from the Khar market
Playing around with a winning recipe

I cooked the pabda for her the next afternoon. This was day of the holi festival and a holiday for her. 

I planned to make a shorshe (mustard) curry. I normally make a diluted version of shorsher jhol. K loves mustard curries but can't handle the pungent ones served in restaurants. She threw up the first tome she had in a restaurant. A no holds barred mustard curry is not a good idea for the uninitiated. At home my mother and I tone it down for K when we cook mustard curries.

The mercurial nature of yogurt in curries

I made the mustard paste in the mixer grinder. I then felt that I should give some body to the sauce as I am not fond of watery curries. I thought of adding posto (khus khus or poppy seeds) to the mustard mix for this but we had none at home. Then I thought of adding milk. Then I vaguely remembered reading about someone adding a bit of yogurt to a shorshe mix. So I thought I would make it a doi (yogurt) based dish. I was not sure how it would turn out as yogurt often curdles when I cook with it. 

The trick, as I have realised is to add yogurt in the end and turn off the hob. There is no guarantee about what follows though.

I tried making a doi shorshe curry yesterday. I thought that I'd share the recipe here if it worked. I even ambitiously took out the white and blue Fabindia plate of ours which gets lots of hits on Instagram to plate the food.

It turned out that my confidence was justified. The dish turned out to be really nice. The sauce was creamy, tangy and mildly pungent and had a bit of chilli heat to it. It didn't overpower the fish and yet masked the fishy smell  of pabda that I abhor. Since the curry was entirely yogurt based, I was worried if it would be too tangy. Turned out that the contrasting flavours of the mustard, the chilli, the coriander leaves, salt and spices balanced it out.              

The curry combined well with rice while K had it by itself. My mom in law doesn't eat fish any more. She had a bit of the curry with rice and loved it.

For a Bengali, fish curry HAS to be had with rice

Folks from the west coast of India don't get scandalised. I know you guys don't combine dairy with fish but we do in the east. Doi maachh is quite the delicacy at our end you know.

Is this recipe an authentic Bengali recipe? 

I don't know to be honest. My mother didn't cook this dish. My mother had about 3.5 fish curry recipes in her inventory. She was a working woman who was more concerned with putting food on the table you see. She was not a hobby cook or a food blogger.

What I can tell you is that I have used ingredients from a Bengali kitchen to make the dish. Shorshe curry is a staple. The use of coriander leaves was based on my mother's whatsapp saying that she too was cooking pabda but with dhone paata (coriander leaves). Plus her former colleague, Nandita De, too suggested dhone paata when I announced my plans to cook pabda on Facebook.

The argument for cooking at home

What I can say in favour of this dish is that adding yogurt gives a more universal appeal to this dish for those who can't handle pungent mustard curries. 

Cooking it at home also meant that it wasn't deep fried till rubbery oblivion unlike in restaurants. One could modulate the spices to ones tastes and eat a dish that was freshly cooked and not just reheated.

The best part is, it took me all of 10 minutes to cook this.

Here's my recipe for the pabda doi shorshe curry or pabda in a mustard yogurt sauce in case you want to try it out.

Ingredients:

3 pabda fish, 1 tablespoon whole black or yellow mustard, 1.5 tablespoon mustard oil, 2 green chillies, 1/4 teaspoon finely chopped ginger, 1/2 teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin and red chilli powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon Nigella seeds, 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh coriander, 50 to 75 g yogurt, dahi

Prep:


Grind 1 tablespoon whole mustard with 1 green chilli. You can add coriader leaves too

The dry mustard paste

Adding curd and spices to make the sauce base

Smearing the pabda with salt, turmeric and red chilli powder
  • Grind 1 tablespoon of whole black mustard, 1 tablespoon of finely chopped coriander leaves (done pata, coriander leaves) and 1 green chilli in a mixer grinder or mortal and pestle
  • Add 75 g of yogurt, 1/2 teaspoon each of turmeric, red chilli and cumin (jeere) powder, 1 teaspoon salt to the dry mix and blend together, ideally in a food processor
  • Marinate the pabda in red chilli, turmeric and salt. Just enough to smear on the body
Cook

Heat mustard oil and then season with ginger, chilli and nigella seeds

Put in the pabda and shallow fry in the oil

Gently turn the fish around

Reduce heat and add the sauce

Gently turn the fish around


Add coriander leaves, mustard oil and turn off the gas, cover with lid
and let it cook in its steam

  1. Heat a tablespoon of mustard oil. Use any other refined oil if you can't access some
  2. Add 1/2 teaspoon of nigella seeds (kalo jeere, kalonji), 1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger (or paste) and 1 green chilli to season the oil
  3. Add the fish gently into the pan. After 30 seconds or so, turn the fish over very gently. It's delicate fish and could break otherwise.
  4. After 30 seconds, lower the flame to minimum and add the yogurt mix
  5. Turn the gas off after about 30 seconds. The sauce might curdle otherwise. Add some fresh coriander and a teaspoon of mustard oil for the aroma.
  6. Turn the fish over very gently and then cover the pan with a lid and let it cook in steam for about 5 minutes
Your dish is ready. Eat it with rice ideally. Don't expect the sauce to be piping hot as over-heating it might affect the sauce.

A yogurt based sauce is rather cooling in summer and it's getting hot these days so i do plan to make this again.

Do let me know if you make something similar. Or if you try making it yourself. Would love to know how it turned out.

Tip: To save time, you can dry grind the mustard seeds and keep it in the fridge and use it as and when required.

Could be of interest:


  1. This is the link to a Periscope video that I did from the Khar Fish Market the day before Holi
  2. My doi maachh recipe using kitchen hacks shared by a friend


My sort of Holi colours


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