This stew smells of my childhood memories full of my mom's cooking. I grew up on the east coast of India (in the state of Orissa) where fish is a staple food. In the Oriya language, this stew is called phulakobi-aloo machhaj-hola (cauliflower-potatoes-fish-stew).
In Orissa and West Bengal, this dish is made with freshwater fish such as rohu or catla. Since I moved to Canada, I have always missed eating these freshwater fishes and looked forward cooking different varieties of fish available here in the traditional stews or curries I grew up eating. Contrary to the popular notion, some species of sea fish taste excellent in lighter stews and gravies. So, when I came across sablefish while searching for some fresh ocean catch at the supermarket here, I couldn't stop from cooking it in the form of machha jhola.
It's not a curry, does not involve a hundred spices and yet is so delicious! That is the beauty of simple dishes, and they are surprisingly more difficult to cook. Because, lesser the ingredients, the lesser control you have to manipulate flavours. A twin version of this same stew is a Bengali favourite too. It's called fulakopi aloo machcher jhol.
Harvested in the deep Pacific ocean waters off the west coast of British Columbia, Sablefish or black cod is truly seafood of the Great White North. It has a buttery luscious texture and full of good fats your body needs. It's flakes are delicate and yet perfect for sautéing, smoking, grilling and baking. No wonder it makes way for an exquisite dinning experience every time it's served on the table.
What are some points to keep in mind when cooking this stew?
This stew is a regular routine food in the Oriya and Bengali households, and so it's extremely light and runny in its consistency. It teams up perfectly with steamed rice and tastes best with no fancy additions. Here is what you can do ensure you don't do too much while cooking it!
Fish is lean meat. So over cooking is always a bad idea. When you pan fry the fish, roughly 2-3 minutes on each side should be the maximum. Wait for the color to turn golden yellow, and stop!
The hero of this stew is potato. You read it right. Not the fish, but the potato. Parboiled potatoes will work best. Since the stew has no puree or dense cooking, parboiled potatoes when slightly mashed provide texture and body to the dish.
Avoid adding any spices like garam masala to this stew. A high-note spice does not go well with the minimal frying/sautéing involved in this recipe.
Fish fillets are delicate once fried. After placing them in the gravy, do not use a spatula to move them around too much. There is a chance you may break the fish fillets. Lift the pan and shake it a little to let the gravy move over and around the fish.
If you are making this with freshwater fish, use mustard oil. The flavour will be amazing.
4-5 sablefish fillets, skin on
1/2 cup parboiled potatoes
1/2 cup cauliflower florets
1 small onion chopped
2 medium tomatoes chopped
For marination: 1/2 tsp each of salt, turmeric and red chili powder
For the gravy: 1 tsp each of cumin seeds, minced ginger, coriander powder, turmeric, red chili powder, 1/4 tsp cumin powder, 1 dried whole red chili, 1 green chili slit, salt to taste
2 tbsp oil
Some chopped fresh coriander leaves
Marinate the fish:
Wash the fish thoroughly.
In a bowl, add the washed fish and then add all the ingredients for marination.
Coat the fish with spices using your hands and keep aside for 5-10 minutes.
Sauté the vegetables and fish
Place a pan or skillet on medium heat and add 1 and 1/2 tbsp of oil.
Add the parboiled potatoes and cauliflower florets and sauté till they turn golden. Keep aside.
In the same pan, carefully place the marinated fish and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side. Keep aside.
Make the gravy:
In the same pan, add 1/2 tbsp oil and add the dry whole red chili and cumin seeds.
Next, add the minced ginger and sauté for about half a minute.
Add the chopped onion and fry until translucent.
Add the coriander powder, turmeric, red chili powder and cumin powder, and mix everything well. Another 2 minutes in.
Add the tomatoes and the slit green chili, and let the tomatoes become soggy and juicy.
Add about 1 cup of water and then add salt.
Bring the water to a boil and then add the vegetables.
Cover and cook for about 5 minutes.
Open and check the seasoning. Add more salt if you feel the need.
Add the fish and let everything simmer for about 2 minutes to let some of the gravy to evaporate, and then turn off the heat.
Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot with white steamed rice!