On a frigid February evening in 2019, two months into my marriage, I stand in the kitchenette of our West End house in Toronto, smearing rice flour batter on roundels of yam and pointed gourd wedges in a bowl. A flurry of snow blows outside and I watch it intermittently from the adjoining window, sliding the vegetables into hot oil in a wok. The greasy pressure cooker, a survivor of my husband's bachelor life, rattles—yellow dal frothing out of it—and falls silent on the scarlet metal coils of the electric stove.
A cooking show plays on the Living Foodz channel streaming through my laptop's screen. My favourite chef, Ranveer Brar cooks Nabhe Wali Machli (literally meaning fish of Nabha). He marinates pieces of fish in turmeric and lime and narrates how the bibis (word used to address women respectably in Punjabi) of Nabha, hailing from Kashmir and married into the royal families in Nabha, Punjab, lent the beauty of Kashmiri cooking to the typical Punjabi fish preparation.
I peel half an acorn squash, imagining it to be the familiar pumpkin from India, and open the cabinet beside the pegboard. "Where is the bottle of panch phoron?", I wonder. Mother had packed it when we left for Canada. Looking amidst the spice holders yet to be opened and placed in an array, I find a pocket-size box. It had jakhya, a bijou cousin of mustard from the Kumaon hills in India, my husband's hometown. I fondly remember my mother-in-law who handpicked every little thing to ensure my new kitchen wasn't bereft of spices, not to mention all the cutlery and ceramics.
While the marinated fish gets shallow fried in a pan, Chef Brar dices the raw mangoes, and onions and boils the lotus root slices in a kadai. I miss a kadai, I ponder. Would the newly wed Kashmiri brides have also missed something in the kitchens of their homes in Punjab? On a summer afternoon in Nabha, peeling a kairi (green mango) with their henna laden hands, they perhaps would have longed the familiarity of nadru, (lotus root), the prominent player in Kashmiri cuisine. What a potato is for the rest of India, nadru is for Kashmir.
I heat a pan and drizzle vegetable oil, wishing it was mustard oil instead, and throw the jakhya seeds into it. They splutter, almost imitating the mustard, and I happily dunk the squash cubes. Something new is discovered in that tiny kitchen in my new home. The classic Kumaoni jakhya seasoned a quintessential Odia dish, buta dali kakharu (bengal gram with pumpkin). My marriage opened yet another dimension of food and helped me innovate. As the Nabhe Wali Machli sizzled on my laptop screen, I stirred the dal with the pumpkin, and thought about food and how it almost always has a story to titillate our minds. How beautifully the Kashmiri bibis added lotus roots to a summer fish curry of Nabha, creating something that would have been loved and welcomed then, but is hardly known today.
Nabha - a princely state of the undivided Punjab in pre-partitioned India was ruled by the Phulkian dynasty, descendants of the Sindhu Jats, and along with Patiala and Jind formed the Phulkian states. The present day city of Nabha in Punjab was the capital of this state.
Punjabi food that we understand or rather recognize today, the kind that's usually served in the restaurants, has been heavily influenced through several years of conquests, trade, travel and intercultural marriages. While West Punjab (present day Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and North West Frontier) favoured the meat dominant cuisine of Afghans, Mughals and Turks, East Punjab (present day Punjab in India, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana) became popular for its vegetarian food of saag (greens), curd, milk, ghee and flat breads made of wheat and maize. It wouldn't be a folly to say that the non-vegetarian food in East Punjab mostly thrived in the aristocratic families, like the ménages of the maharajas of Nabha, Patiala, Kapurthala, Jind, Ambala and more.
An interesting aspect of Punjabi food is how the food in royal families transformed with intercultural marriages. Brides from the hilly parts of Punjab (present day Himachal Pradesh), Jammu and Kashmir introduced the ingredients, spices and cooking techniques from their native lands into the Punjabi royal kitchens. This was true in the Mughal kitchens as well where the Muslim princes married Hindu Rajput princesses who brought many variations in the flavour palette of the Mughal cuisine. A cross influence of Punjabi food can be found in the cuisine of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu which were once ruled by the Sikh ruler, Ranjit Singh and his successors.
Punjab and Kashmir also share intertwined histories of trauma and heroism. While Guru Tegh Bahadur stood up against Aurangzeb over the persecution of Kashmiri pandits and was imprisoned and executed as a consequence in 1675, Sikh Misls (brigades) under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia fought and defeated the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761 rescuing thousands of Kashmiri women who were being captured and sent to Afghanistan as war booty.
The more I tried to look up the history of Nabhe Wali Machli, I realized that as much as food needs to be passed on and shared, what's perhaps even more important is the appropriate adoption of it, and not just appreciation. You wouldn't find Nabhe Wali Machli in any common lists of Punjabi foods, although it holds a special place in Punjab's history, a dish that represents the cosmopolitanism of Punjab. The use of mustard oil and no ghee also reflects upon the food of the common people in Punjab: the farmers, the workers and the labourers. Their food like the sarson ka saag, an ensemble of mustard greens, is primarily cooked in mustard oil. As the erudite food historian Pushpesh Pant mentions in the Indian television series, Raja, Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan that ghee is more of an add-on-top ingredient in the working class's food in Punjab while mustard oil runs the show. However the use of mustard oil in Nabhe Wali Machli seems more of a Kashmiri influence to me as this oil is center stage in Kashmiri food, and the Kasmiri bibis of Nabha appear to have used it abundantly in Punjabi cooking.
Although it's plausible that Nabhe Wali Machli could have been first created under the influence of some Maharani of Nabha with a Kashmiri lineage, no concrete artifacts or documents exist. The dish being a summer speciality, evident through the use of mangoes, could also have originated in the Nabha Palace at Mussoorie, Himachal Pradesh where the erstwhile Maharaja of Nabha and his family spent the sweltering months. Situated in the lap of hills and surrounded by oaks and cedars, the palace has been converted into a heritage hotel, the Claridges Nabha Residence. The summer house is known to still cook the Nabha style fish curry. More than a decade ago, The Square at the Novotel hotel in Mumbai used to showcase the food of the royal families of Patiala and Nabha, and the Nabhe Wali Machli was a part of the dinner menu beside Patialashahi Raan and Hara Chana Gosht. However, I'm not sure if it's still served there.
So, next time you're at a restaurant serving Punjabi food and you order the usual butter chicken or dal makhni, rooting that it's truly Punjabi, think about this effervescent fish curry from the Punjab of an undivided India. Even if you don't eat fish, perhaps think about the variety of ingredients that accompany the fish, or reflect upon this story. As the famous American environmentalist and writer, Winona LaDuke says,
"Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots...Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships."
What about this recipe?
I strongly believe in maintaining the character of a dish. For me it isn't so much about the recipe rather finding the key elements in a recipe that truly define a dish's individuality and ensuring that those are maintained no matter how much I alter the recipe. I've followed the same philosophy in this recipe.
Traditionally, Nabhe Wali Machli uses raw mangoes to induce a sour note. I have replaced mangoes with a spice mix I specially created for this recipe. I use two parts amchur (dry mango) one part anardana (dry pomegranate) and a quarter part amla (Indian gooseberry) to make a spice blend that substitutes the raw mangoes of the traditional recipe. Using this spice blend ensures that I can enjoy Nabhe Wali Machli at any time of the year!
The original recipe uses lime leaves, which I don't find easily in the market here. I have used chopped lemongrass at times, but eventually I liked the flavour of lime zest more.
I have made this recipe with kingfish, seer fish, tilapia and halibut. It turns out great with everything.
*This recipe is an adaptation from chef Ranveer Brar's original recipe. Please refer my notes under, "What about this recipe?" to understand the twists I have introduced in the traditional Nabhe Wali Machli.*
3-4 pieces of your favourite fish
2-3 slender lotus roots or 1 stout lotus root sliced
1 large or 2 medium onions julienne cut
1 large 2 medium tomatoes diced into quarters
2-3 tbsp mustard oil
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp ginger garlic minced
2 tsp amchur (dried mango powder) + 1 tsp anardana (pomegranate seeds) +1/4 tsp amla (dry gooseberry) ground fine
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 tsp turmeric
5-7 coriander stems
2-3 green chilies slit
Half a lime for marination
Zest of half a lime
Salt to taste
Pinch of sugar
Marinate the fish with 1 tsp turmeric, salt and lime juice for 15-20 minutes.
Add water into a pot and sprinkle salt when the water boils. To the boiling salty water, add the sliced lotus roots and boil for about 10 minutes. Drain the lotus roots and keep aside.
In a pan, heat mustard oil to its smoking point and then gradually add the marinated fish, one at a time. Let each side fry for about 3-4 minutes ensuring that the fish turn golden brownish. Keep them aside.
In another pan or wok, heat some more mustard oil to its smoking point, and then add cumin. Let it crackle and then add the onions. Sauté until translucent and then add the ginger and garlic.
Add turmeric, red chilli and coriander, and fry the dry spices for a couple of minutes. Continue until the onions turn golden brown. At this stage, add the dry mango, dry pomegranate and dry amla powder, and mix everything well.
Add water depending on the amount of gravy you want and salt to taste, and let everything simmer. Next add the lotus roots and the tomatoes and cook until tomatoes start wilting. Take care NOT to let the tomatoes lose their shape as they get cooked. To ensure this, do not cover the pan.
Add the lime zest, green chilies, coriander stems, and sprinkle sugar to balance the tanginess of the gravy. Let it simmer uncovered till you're happy with the consistency of the gravy.
Turn off the heat and pour the gravy into a serving dish. Now add the leftover oil from the pan in which you fried the fish into the gravy. Place the fried fish on top of the gravy.
Nabhe Wali Machli is ready to be poured on top of hot steamed rice and enjoyed! The gravy is so tangy and blasting with high notes of mango that you will feel tempted to eat with your fingers and throw that spoon away! The coriander stems and the lime zest add a beautiful hue of freshness to the dish.
If you make this dish using my recipe, let me know how you liked it! Tag me on Instagram or drop in your comments here! I'll be so happy to know you made this.