This Macher Jhol recipe has a surprisingly sophisticated flavour profile.
Macher Jhol, or fish stew, is a Bengali recipe that requires a bit of extra elbow grease to get the most out of it, but it is well worth the effort.
Channeling traditional spice blends from the Bengal region, this dish eschews the fiery heat of India’s chilli-based dishes for something warm and soothing.
Best of all, you can prepare it at home with relative ease, using many ingredients you may already have lying around.
Macher Johl (serves 4, prep time 20 minutes, cooking time 30 minutes)
- 500g fresh water fish (we used pangasius or the ‘Vietnamese river cobbler’), cut into medium size chunks
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 large potatoes, chopped into medium pieces
- 2 bulbs of garlic
- 1 large tomato, sliced (or four salad tomatoes)
- 1 tbsp ground coriander
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp ground chilli powder
- 1 tbsp ground tumeric
- 1/2 tbsp of Bengali 5 spice mix
- 300ml water
- In a deep pan, heat up around 250ml of cooking oil until it starts to smoke.
- Prepare fish and potatoes by rubbing salt and tumeric onto them. Lightly fry in the oil until golden brown.
- Remove the fish, use kitchen paper to soak up any excess oil.
- Repeat the same steps with the potatoes.
- In a separate pan, heat up a small amount of oil and gently cook the Bengali 5 spice.
- When it starts to sizzle, put in the onions and fry until translucent. Add the potatoes and stir well.
- Mix the ground spices in a bowl with a small amount of water to make a paste.
- Add the paste to the pan and stir well, cooking for about 3 minutes. Add 300ml of water, bring to the boil.
- Add the tomato pieces, cover and cook for 5 minutes.
- Uncover and add a generous pinch of salt (this is important as it stops the soup from drawing all the salt out of the fish and leaving it bland and tasteless).
- Put the fish pieces into the mix, recover and cook for 10 minutes. Add more water if you want a more soup-like consistency.
- When cooked, serve on its own or with steamed rice.
This Macher Jhol recipe has a surprisingly sophisticated flavour profile. Each bite brings with it a new taste, that feels familiar yet at the same time alien.
By frying the fish and potatoes before cooking, a lot of their unique flavour is sealed inside – meaning that while the dish overall has a familiar South Asian flavour, thanks to the spice mix and in particular the tumeric, each bite also contains its own unique taste.
The fresh taste of the fish comes through cleanly, each bite of potato retains its earthy palate.
Every now and then you bite into a piece of tomato and a short, sharp flood of sweetness enters the mix.
Needless to say, this is an extremely good recipe that will offer something for everyone. Bulky enough to stand without any gastronomic accoutrements, there’s nothing that bad in the dish.
Health conscious chefs can prepare the fish and potatoes by shallow frying or grilling them lightly, but their flavour experience might vary.
Use a light oil when frying and make sure to drain off any excess before cooking to avoid any needless stodginess.
Traditional Bengali cuisine is almost entirely meat-free due to the low popularity of livestock rearing in the region. Fresh water fish is present in a lot of dishes, however, due to the proximity to the Ganga and Damodar rivers.
The region also uses a unique spice mix called Panch Phoron, which contains black cumin, black mustard, fenugreek, fennel and cumin seed.
Try it for yourself, and experience a little slice of Bengal at home.