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Maacher Kalia - Maacher Jhol - Bengali Fish Curry

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Maacher Kalia or Maacher Jhol is a family favorite and a standard request when my in-laws visit. We don't have to coax too much as my Father-in-law is always happy to oblige and make us some. He makes it really well and I enjoy watching him prepare this simple yet delicious Bengali dish. Maacher Kalia or Maacher Jhol means Fish (Maach) and (Jhol) in curry or gravy. The most commonly used fish to prepare Maacher Kalia or Maacher Jhol is Rohu (a kind of fresh water carp) or Rui Maach. If you do not have access to Rui Maach, you can also use Salmon, Pomfret, Sea Bass, Red Snapper, Tilapia or Catfish. Unlike in other parts of India, Bengali recipes call for the frying of the main ingredient in mustard oil, before it is added to the gravy or curry. This is thought to enhance flavors and cause the fish/ meat/ eggs, to absorb the spices in the gravy better. In some Bengali homes, this frying translates to deep-frying, while in others it means pan-frying. Take your pick, depending on preference. Here is the recipe, direct from Baba (my Father-in-law)...

Yield: Serves 4-6 people

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg of thickly cut Rohu steaks (cleaned and scales removed)
  • For the fish: 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup mustard/ vegetable/ canola/ sunflower cooking oil
  • For the gravy/ jhol: 4 mustard/ vegetable/ canola/ sunflower cooking oil
  • 3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 3 tbsps mustard/ vegetable/ canola/ sunflower cooking oil
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 5 green cardamom pods, bruised
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 large onion, ground to a smooth paste in a food processor
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • 1 tsp garlic paste
  • 2 tomatoes chopped very fine
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder/ haldi
  • 1 tsp coriander/ dhania powder
  • 1/2 tsp cumin/ jeera powder
  • 2 tbsps unsweetened yogurt
  • 1/4 cup of fresh, green coriander leaves/ cilantro, chopped very fine

Preparation:

  • Wash the fish well, drain ALL water and pat each piece dry with a piece of kitchen towel. Lay in a flat dish.
  • Sprinkle the turmeric/ haldi powder and salt over the fish and mix well to ensure every piece of fish is well coated with the marinade. Set aside for 30 minutes.
  • When the fish has marinated, set up a frying pan on medium heat, to fry the fish. When the pan is hot, add the cooking oil and heat. Fry the pieces of fish till each one is golden on both sides. do not crowd the pan and remember to be gentle with the fish as it cooks quickly and can break. When fried, keep the pieces of fried fish aside for later use.
  • Use the same oil (add more if necessary) to pan fry the potatoes till they are half cooked and golden. Drain and keep aside on paper towels for later use.
  • If there is any cooking oil left over from the frying (fish and potatoes) use it in this next step. Add more if required. Heat the cooking oil on medium heat and add the bay leaf, cardamom pods and cumin seeds. Sauté until the spluttering stops.
  • Now add the onion paste and ginger and garlic pastes and fry for 4-5 minutes.
  • Now add the tomatoes, turmeric powder, coriander/ dhania powder, cumin/ jeera powder and yogurt. Stir to mix well. Fry this spice mixture until the oil begins to separate from it - it will form a sheen on top of the mixture! This could take up to 10 minutes.
  • Add 1.5-2 cups of hot water and the previously fried potatoes to this mixture. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are done.
  • Now add the previously fried pieces of fish to the gravy and stir gently. Cook for another 4-5 minutes.
  • Turn off the heat and garnish the dish with the fresh, chopped coriander leaves.
  • Serve with freshly prepared plain rice!

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