banana-tree-right banana-tree-left
A blue cat holding a fish in it’s mouth. In front of the cat is half the face of a lady with her finger next to 2 fishes and 3 prawns. Next to the cat is a glimpse of a basket with fish.K.G. Subramanyan, Untitled,
c. 1980, Oil on canvas,
MAC.01359

For the love of fish

Our history with fish has stood the test of time. Excavations from regions that formed the Indus Valley Civilisation reveal that sea fish were likely consumed in South Asia more than thousands of years ago. Even today, the rich coastlines of India are home to numerous species of fish.

In Bengali cuisine, fish occupies a central role, so much so that some view it as intrinsically linked to Bengali identity and culture. Even the priestly class in Bengal, the brahmans, consume fish. The hilsa, in particular, is a prized possession and is also the subject of rivalry between East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal. When Bengal was partitioned in 1947, there was also a division in rivers. Though both the Ganga and Padma river contain hilsa, there are heated debates over which side has the more succulent fish. This extends to the sports field as fans of the East Bengal football team celebrate a victory over a meal of hilsa while Mohan Bagan fans opt to eat prawns. Yet, despite divisions in land and sporting rivalries, individuals on both sides share a common love for the famed hilsa. In the Meen Moilee recipe below we see this shared intimacy in a new form.

KG Subramanyan’s painting depicts a woman who appears to be prodding a basket of blue fish and prawns, perhaps playfully. Behind her, a blue tiger, bearing sharp teeth, holds a fish in its mouth. In the coastal state of Kerala, KG Subramanyan’s place of birth, fish is an important component of local cuisine. Karimeen (Green Chromide or pearl spot fish), found in both fresh and brackish water, was crowned the state’s official fish in 2010 and remains a crowd-favourite.

Meen Moilee by Arnika Ahldag

“I had this dish many years ago at Fusion Bay in Fort Kochi, where I used to have dinner with friends during the Kochi Muziris Biennale. I later recreated the recipe at home by adding some potatoes which make the coconut milk a little more creamy, and I completely overdo the kadi patta because I love the flavour. The dish is named after Molly, the lady who tempered down the spices of the otherwise really hot Kerala fish curry for the Britishers.”

List of ingredients

For 2 people
Time: 45 minutes

250 gms Fish Fillet, cut in pieces, rubbed in turmeric, sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice (I like using Bhetki, but Tilapia, Kingfish or any other sea fish work well too)
400 ml Coconut milk (weirdly the Thai coconut cream works well)
Coconut oil
Mustard seeds
2 green chillies (slit)
Ginger
Garlic
2 Onions, or a handful of small onions (sliced)
A very generous amount of Kadi patta
1-2 Tomatoes
1- 2 Potatoes
1 Lime

Method

Marinate the fish for 30 minutes; meanwhile, slice your onions, tomatoes and potatoes and grate your ginger and garlic.

Heat some coconut oil in a pan, add mustard seeds, kadi patta and green chillies.

After a few seconds, add the grated ginger, garlic, and onion and fry everything until the onion becomes translucent.

Add the coconut milk and bring everything to a boil.

Add the fish and potato slices and cook everything for about 10 minutes, until the fish is well cooked but also not over cooked.

Arrange the tomato slices on top, and let it simmer for not more than 30 seconds. Switch off the flame and let it sit for 2 minutes.

Sprinkle some lime on top if you feel the tomatoes haven’t given the dish the right amount of tanginess yet.

Add more chilli if you want the dish to taste less colonial.

It’s delicious when served with hot appams, malabar parotta or rice on the side.