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#FishStory: Reviving an age-old fave – ‘Machli Ka Salan’

“My first sensation of life was the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards,” recalls Hassan Haji, in Richard C. Morais’ The Hundred-Foot Journey’.

I was once again in my grandmother’s house in the Old City of Lahore.  I could see her sitting on the cemented floor of her shabby but practical kitchen, crouching beside a slab of stone, grinding an aromatic paste of ginger, garlic, cumin and red chillies with another handy piece of stone, moving her hand rhythmically backwards and forwards.

As this paste hit the hot oil in the pan along with other spices, it made an angry whooshing sound and a whole new world of crazy aromas opened up with the steam that rose from the pan.  This masala used to be so delicious that mostly I ate it with stale bread, sitting on the floor next to her.

This recipe is inspired by the very first page of the book that struck a chord with me instantly. Hassan Haji ‘s Hundred Foot Journey, across the road from his father’s Indian restaurant to Madame Mallory’s Michelin starred French kitchen, is for the reader a ride through the beautiful world of senses…palpable, exciting and throbbing with life.

Ingredients:

1/2 kg fish fillet and head
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 medium onion, sliced
4 – 5 cloves garlic
1 inch piece ginger
1 cup yogurt or coconut milk
1 teaspoon green cardamom seeds, crushed
2 black cardamoms
2-3 cloves
A pinch of carom seeds
1 bay leaf or tez patta
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
1 teaspoon garam masala powder
1/4 cup vegetable oil or ghee (clarified butter)

Method:

Marinate fish in salt, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and lemon juice for 15-20 minutes.  Heat oil in a deep pan.  Fry onions till golden brown. Remove from oil and add to a blender or food processor with ginger, garlic and yogurt. Make a smooth paste. 

Add the dry spices, green cardamom seeds, black cardamoms, cloves, bay leaf, carom, turmeric and chilli powder to the oil in pan. Sauté for 2 minutes or till the spices no more smell raw. 

Add the yogurt paste to the pan. Keep cooking for 7-8 minutes or till the masala separates from oil.

Add the fish pieces to the masala.  Keep spattering a little water, a few tablespoons at a time to keep the fish and masala from sticking at the bottom.

Once the fish has been added to the masala, don’t use the spoon to move it around or the fish pieces will break. To stir grasp the pot by the handles with pot holders and swivel the pan.

Cook like this uncovered for 5 minutes or till the fish changes colour.  Add 1 + 1/2 cup of water, cover the pan, reduce heat to minimum. Let the broth simmer for another 5-7 minutes.

Garnish with green chilli peppers, coriander and garam masala. Serve hot with steamed rice or roti.

Serves 4.

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