There's something utterly satisfying about yogurt based gravies. The silky texture, the hint of mild tartness in the mouth and the satiation it generates make anything delicious on the go. Whether topped on vegetables or meat, I find such gravies very tempting albeit rich. But, fish tossed in such a delicate delicious sauce has to be my soft spot!
My journey with non-vegetarian food has been a roller coaster. In my childhood, fish was dominant in our diet as expected in any Odia (people who are from the state of Odisha in India) family. Eating red meat was limited to mutton, a Sunday extravaganza. As to poultry, eggs (yes, eggs are considered non-vegetarian in the Indian diet) were regular, and chicken was rare — rather absent in my mom's cooking until I was about twelve or thirteen years old— and showed up in place of mutton on some Sundays as the chicken jhol.
I was eighteen when I moved to Mumbai and started living away from home. And, my cooking journey burgeoned in a vegetarian Punjabi family. I believe what you cook is heavily influenced by the nuances of your lifestyle as much as your taste buds. So, amidst the settings of my Mumbai home, I predominantly cooked vegetarian food, indulging in non-vegetarian only outside.
Years later I moved to Bangalore and ventured into living on my own and my cooking got a new dimension. I was now free to cook non-vegetarian food at home. Over the years, I have cooked chicken, mutton, fish and eggs, experimenting with a variety of cuisines. I have finally realized that I'm somewhere on the verge of being a pescatarian.
My husband is a vegetarian (eats eggs though) but thank goodness that he can tolerate me cooking/eating fish!
Fish, macha in Odia, is auspicious in the Odia and Bengali cultures — so much that it's an important element in Odia and Bengali weddings. Fish forms an integral part of Odia cuisine, considered staple in the coastal diet, and prepared in many different ways. From thin gravies known as jhols which use an onion-ginger-garlic paste and topped with tomatoes to somewhat richer gravies that incorporate mustard seed paste and ambula (dried mango kernels) for sourness or the silkiness of yogurt and fish fries which range plain to spicy, wrapped in leaves and steamed or roasted, Odia cuisine abounds in fish preparations.
Odisha (previously known as Orissa) is the modern name of the ancient territory called, Kalinga. Invaded by the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka in 261 BC, this coastal state of India has a long rich history in food. With chefs who cooked in temples to cooks who made food at homes and later migrated West Bengal and northern states of India, Odia cuisine is abundant in stories of cultural exchanges and temple style of cooking. Spices like mustard, cumin, dry red chilies, fenugreek, fennel, poppy and nigella seeds, cardamom, and asafoetida are used in different blends and as wholes, using minimum oil and maximum flair.
While I was in India, river water fish such as rohu, catla (Indian carp), ilish (hilsa), pabda were preeminent in my fish diet, a consequence of what I grew up eating. Sea fish such as rawas, surmai, bangda, Bombay duck are common on the west coast of India and I was not introduced to them until I landed in Mumbai. After moving to Canada, cooking fish is a newfangled skill because I'm forever trying to cook atypical fishes in typical Indian style of gravies!
Dahi Macha, my way
Dahi and macha — yogurt and fish — make a delicious combination. This fish gravy is a perfect blend of Odia besara and Bengali shorse gravies. Besara (read as bae-saraw) and shorse (read as shore-shay) are Odia and Bengali names respectively for a spice paste (sauce) made of mustard seeds. Traditionally, I would have loved to make it with rohu fish, but I haven't yet found it in Canada (not here in Whitehorse at least). Trout is the closest fresh water fish that feels close to that childhood nostalgia of freshwater fish and is great for all kinds of Odia and Bengali fish gravies. Off late, I have made it with halibut, tilapia and salmon as well, and it tastes great.
Cooking with mustard paste
Cooking with mustard paste is an art and requires some level of skill and practice before one can master it. Once you learn how to make and cook a good mustard paste, your tongue will discover a whole new world of taste, an explosion of flavours your palate had probably been missing all these years!
What are besara and shorshe?
As I mentioned above, besara (pronounced as bae-saw-raw) and shorshe (pronounced as shore-shay) are respective names in the Odia and Bengali language to a spice paste (sauce) made with mustard seeds.
You would have guessed by now that mustard seeds are used abundantly in Odia and Bengali cuisines.
The mustard paste uses the black mustard seeds (and yellow at times) ground with garlic and green or dried red chilies. In Bengali cuisine, it's usually ground with green chilies and sometimes coconut.
What are some key points to remember while cooking with mustard paste?
If you are a beginner in cooking with using mustard paste, the rule of thumb is 'less is more'. As you experiment and evolve and begin to appreciate and understand how mustard works in the food, you will master the art of picking the right quantity.
If you're skeptical about the quantity mentioned in a recipe that involves mustard paste, my advice is to lessen it by at least a quarter.
Mustard paste when sautéed too much can turn bitter. Once you add it to the rest of the ingredients in a dish, 30 seconds to a 1 minute should be the maximum time you sauté.
If you are using onions and tomatoes in a recipe that has mustard paste, always add the paste once your onions and tomatoes are fully sautéed and almost cooked.
Two ways to make this gravy
Traditional way: To make a traditional dahi macha with a good hint of mustard and the perfect sourness and richness from curd/yogurt, I follow the same recipe as my mom's. The typical dahi macha in Odisha does not use onions or tomatoes but in my family we add it sometimes for some variation and added texture.
With a twist: To make a less pungent mustardy version, I use yellow mustard powder instead of the yellow or black mustard seeds. Further I pound and add garlic in the gravy than grinding it with mustard. This tends to make the dish a bit simpler than the traditional one.
Traditional Dahi Macha
4-5 pieces of fresh water fish like rochu, catla or trout. You can also use salmon or halibut.
For marination of fish: 1/2 tsp each of salt and turmeric
1 tbsp mustard oil or any other oil for frying the fish
For mustard paste: 2 tbsp black mustard seeds, 5-6 cloves of garlic, 3-4 dried red chillies soaked in water for an hour
3-4 tbsp unflavoured yogurt
For tempering: 1-2 tsp mustard oil or any other oil, 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp black mustard seeds, 10-12 curry leaves, 4-5 green chilies slit
1 small onion sliced
1 small tomato sliced
1 tsp salt or to taste
Marinate the fish with salt and turmeric and keep aside.
Drain the soaked mustard, chili and garlic and grind into a smooth paste by adding some water. Add salt and 1/2 cup water to the yogurt and whisk this paste into the yogurt breaking any lumps and keep aside.
In a pan, heat oil and then shallow fry the fish, turning them after 3-4 minutes. Once done, take out the fish and keep aside. Switch off the heat. Add the shallow fried pieces of fish into the whisked yogurt mustard paste, coating the fish pieces well. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
Switch on the heat again and to the same pan in which you fried the fish, add the coated fish back. Keep the heat low. Slowly add the remaining whisked yogurt into the pan. Let the gravy simmer on very low heat. Add sliced onions and tomatoes and keep everything simmering on low heat.
After 5-7 minutes, heat oil in a small fry pan. Once the oil is hot, add mustard and cumin seeds and curry leaves (take care as these will splutter). Swirl the pan and gradually add the slit chilies and then pour this tempering over the simmering fish gravy.
Switch off the heat and cover the fish gravy and let the flavours assimilate. Let the gravy settle for sometime before serving.
Dahi Macha with a twist
4-5 pieces of fresh water fish like rochu, catla or trout. You can also use salmon or halibut.
For marination: 1/2 tsp each of salt and turmeric
For mustard yogurt sauce paste: 2 tbsps yellow mustard powder, 2 green chilies, 2 drops neutral or mustard oil, 3 tbsps unflavoured yogurt, a pinch each of coriander, turmeric and red chili powder. Note: If you don't have mustard oil, use any other oil. Mustard oil gives it a nice sharp taste. If you have never eaten a mustard based gravy or do not like it pungent, reduce the mustard powder to 1 and 1/2 or 1 tbsp.
For the gravy: 1 and 1/2 tbsps mustard or neutral oil, 1 tsp nigella seeds, 1 dried whole red chili, two big pods of crushed garlic, salt to taste, pinch of sugar, freshly chopped coriander leaves.
Add salt and turmeric to the fish and keep aside for 15-20 minutes.
In a bowl, add mustard powder, slit green chilies, two drops of mustard oil and a little water to make a paste. Give it a mix and keep aside. In another bowl, add yogurt, turmeric, coriander powder, red chilli powder and beat the mixture. Pour the mustard paste into the curd mix and beat again. Set it aside.
Put a pan/woke/kadhai, on medium heat and add. Shallow fry the fish. Remove and keep aside. 2-3 minutes frying each side of the fish is enough. Do NOT deep fry the fish.
In the same pan, add nigella seeds. Let them crackle, then add the whole dried red chilli. Next, add garlic. Sauté and then add the bloomed mustard-yogurt paste.
Lower the flame and stir continuously for 30 seconds. Add the fish and coat them well with the sizzling paste, and then add some water. Add salt to taste and adjust the seasoning with a pinch of sugar. Note: The amount of water depends on the thickness of the gravy you want. I don't like too thick gravies, so I add slightly more water and then let it evaporate a bit on medium heat.
Let it simmer until you are satisfied with the consistency of the gravy.
Garnish with roughly chopped coriander leaves.
You can see how simple this gravy is, and if you make it, you will realize how bountiful it is in flavours. Yogurt balances the pungency of mustard, and garlic provides that rustic note to this gravy. Keep some hot steaming rice ready to go with it! Enjoy!