From the Bengali machher jhaal to the Mangalorean gassi, the pomfret is the star of fish curries

Unlike most other species of sea fish -- salmon, tuna etc -- that are available around the world with some regional variations, the pomfret is a variety typical to South Asia.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

The much debated North-South divide does not arouse as much passion as the quarrel over freshwater and sea fish that rages in parts of India. Till not very long ago, no self-respecting “bhadralok ghoti” Bengali would be seen buying any variety of sea fish in the market as it would be a sign of the family having fallen into bad times. The pomfret would sell for a song in Kolkata with very few takers. But not any more. Now, the pomfret is coveted and sells at prices comparable to Mumbai and other places.

Similarly, go to Western and Southern India and even now one has to hunt for vendors selling freshwater fish in markets. In some cities, they are available only in areas where there is a sizeable population from Bengal and other Eastern and North East India states. However, when the price of prime varieties of freshwater fish, like rohu and katla, shot up, people began to try pomfret and acquired a taste for it. Over time the supply of pomfret increased in the market. As the demand for pomfret went up in the rest of India and supplies from the Western coast could not fulfil it, pomfret from the Bay of Bengal started being exported to Mumbai and other places. While the demand there was for the large sized fish, the smaller sized fish were sold in the East at relatively lower rates. But there was more to it than that -- because other varieties of sea fish like surmai (kingfish), mackerel and sardines did not catch on in the East.

The essential difference between sea fish and freshwater fish is oil content. Sea fish in general have greater amount of Omega 3 fatty acids that impart a distinct taste that is missing in river or freshwater fish. Now, before you cry hilsa, let me remind you that it is essentially a sea fish that swims up the estuary to spawn. However, what sets apart freshwater fish in India is the variety, which emanates from the different types of riverine systems and water bodies in our vast country. Talk of rivers first, from tiny rivulets to mountain rapids (the Himalayan trout), we have the giant Brahmaputra, Godavari, Ganga and Yamuna. Then there are the more serene Narmada and Tapti on one side, the Krishna and Cauvery on the other. In addition to the lakes, ponds and tanks, we have large stretches of brackish water in different parts of the country -- Sunderbans in Bengal, Chilika in Odisha and the backwaters of Kerala (think of karimeen or the pearl spot). Then there are the paddy fields which, when submerged in water, yield special varieties like koi (or climbing perch). All this provides an incredible range of aquatic catches that very few countries can offer.

The majority of Indian freshwater fish come either from the carp (rohu, katla, mrigal) or catfish (pangus, magur, tengra) families. These varieties provide the main protein source for fish eaters. So they are now farmed commercially -- even in states like Gujarat which is predominantly vegetarian and Andhra for dispatch to other parts of the country.

West Bengal has a surfeit of ponds, tanks and minor distributaries of the Ganga that breed many local varieties of small fish, each with a unique flavour of its own. From that comes the Ghoti love for “choto maachh” (small fish). East Bengal, on the other hand, has the mighty Padma and Meghna which are the homes of larger Piscean creatures -- giant bhetkis, chitol, aar and boals. But the Ganga itself produces some small catches -- the “bachhua”, a type of baby catfish, being one of them. Bengalis also love their “chuno maachh” (baby fishes) like mourola (more in the nature of anchovies or the South Indian neythili) which are delectable in any form - crisply fried, in a thick hot curry or even as a sour chutney like dish (‘ambol’ or ‘maccher tok’) at the end of a meal on a summer afternoon. The simply deep fried fresh bachhua off the Son river in Bihar can be a treat for any fish lover. Similarly, I recall having a river rohu on the banks of the Narmada at Bedhaghat, near Jabalpore. The taste still lingers in my mouth even after a good forty years.

The beauty of freshwater fish comes from the fact that they are amenable to cooking with very little spices. Whereas sea fish due to its higher fat content in the meat, which tends to disintegrate over time, requires use of heavier spices -- in some instances, the addition of onion, garlic and souring agents like tamarind paste, kokum or vinegar -- that subsume the basic taste of the fish. Thus a fried vanjaram (kingfish or surmai) in the south is coated with a masala and karipatta, while bangda (mackerel) in Goa is loaded with Recheado paste.

This is where the pomfret scores effortlessly straddling between the twain of sea and river. Unlike most other species of sea fish -- salmon, tuna etc -- that are available around the world with some regional variations, the pomfret is a variety typical to South Asia. Outside of the subcontinent, I have had it in Thailand, where it is referred to as butter fish, but is not the most popular. But in India, the pomfret lends itself as easily to the Parsi patranu machhi as the divine bhetki would to Bengali paturi (both wrapped with light masala in banana leaf and gently steamed). It turns out as well as in a Bengali machher “jhaal” (as opposed to “jhol” as the former is a wee bit more spicy) with Turkic ginger and onion paste as it does in a Malwani curry or Mangalorean gassi. A tandoori pomfret is a delight enjoyed by all kinds of fish lovers. Similarly, a fillet of pomfret can match that of any other white fish like bhetki or sole. My personal favourite is stuffed pomfret with dried mini prawns (jawala) or kismur. Try it sometime, when in Mumbai, at Sadichha in Bandra East (opposite the MIG Cricket Club) and remember this column for it.

Finally, the story of river fish will be incomplete without remembering the mighty mahseer of Jim Corbett’s stories -- probably the only game fish of India. I never had the fortune of having a just captured mahseer grilled over the fire by the riverside. But on a recent trip to Corbett National Park, I was lucky to see some in the Ramganga river inside the forest.

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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