This Bengali fish curry pays homage to 'Kaalia', the sidekick of dacoit Gabbar Singh in the Bollywood cult film Sholay. Sorry, couldn't resist that.
Truth be told, Kaalia is a rich gravy, that owes its origins to syncretic India, when the culture and cuisine of Muslim invaders were assimilated and absorbed in the food of the country's Hindu inhabitants.
In fact, korma/qorma and rezala, also different styles of curry, are a hat tip to Islamic India. The Mughlai paratha, for instance, is named after the Mughals. Teamed with kosha mangsho (bhuna mutton) or chholar dal (chana dal) it remains a street-food favourite in Bengal, possibly centuries after it was created.
Swarupa Dutt's Maachher Kaalia incorporates onion, garlic and ginger and is cooked with loads of tomatoes. The gravy is spicy, thick and ascends the palate in an orgasmic burst of flavour.
The maachh or fish used for Kaalia are sweet-water ones like rohu or katla, but pomfret and surmai work as well. If you are using pomfret, keep the steaks thick.
Fish is the next to godliness in Bengal and the thicker the steak the smoother your ascent to heaven.
As an aside, rohu/katla generally have a lot of fat on the flesh, unlike pomfret/surmai, which adds flavour to the curry. In fact, if you buy rohu/katla (from a fishmonger) in winter, you can see the white goodness of fish fat (high in omega 3) as the stomach is opened out.
But if you buy frozen fish on an app for instance, the fat is always discarded before packing. Fish fat, much like say, pork fat or lard, enhances the flavour of the dish you are making.
For the fish marination
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp haldi or turmeric powder
For the curry
- 6 steaks rohu/katla
- 1 medium potato, peeled and chopped once lengthwise and then chopped into two halves breadth-wise and into three pieces each to yield six pieces and marinated with a pinch of turmeric powder.
- 2 large onions, one finely sliced, the other blitzed to a smooth paste
- 1 tbsp ginger paste
- 1 tbsp garlic paste
- 4 tbsp tomato paste, blitz fresh tomatoes, don't use store-bought tomato puree
- ¾ tsp haldi or turmeric powder
- ½ to 1 tsp chilly powder to taste
- 1 tsp jeera or cumin powder
- 6 tbsp rai or mustard oil, for frying the fish + 3 tbsp for the gravy
- 3-4 raisins
- Salt to taste
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 tsp ghee
- ½ tsp garam masala
- 1 tbsp fresh green dhania or coriander or cilantro leaves, chopped
- 1½ cups water + extra tsps water while braising the paste
- 2 dry red chillies
- 2 green chillies
- 3-4 pieces green elaichi or cardamom
- 3-4 pieces long or cloves
- 1-inch stick dalcheeni or cinnamon
- 2 tej patta or bay leaves, washed and patted dry
- Mix the turmeric, chilly and cumin powder with water in a small bowl to make a runny paste.
- Wash the fish steaks, pat dry and marinate with the turmeric powder and salt for 30 minutes.
- Heat the mustard oil in a kadhai or wok.
When it starts to smoke, lower the heat and wait for the smoke to subside and the oil to cool a little.
Keep the heat on medium.
Gently add the fish steaks, one or two at a time, and fry on each side for a few seconds.
Do not add more than two fish steaks or they will break.
For Fish Kaalia, the steaks need to be fried till a deep golden.
Make sure the oil is hot or the fish will stick to the kadhai and break apart.
You can also fry the fish in a non-stick pan and halve the amount of oil to 3 tbsp.
This also allows you to fry at least three steaks at a time if the pan is largish and the fish will not stick to the pan.
Remove and keep aside.
- In the same oil add the potatoes.
Saute till they turn a light golden, drain and keep aside.
- Add more oil, there should be at least 2 tablespoons of oil in the kadhai and add all the aromatics.
Once they change colour, after a few seconds, add the sliced onions and fry on low to medium heat till they turn golden brown.
Add the blitzed onion, ginger, garlic paste, salt.
Braise until the colour darkens and the moisture dries up.
Keep adding a few tsps of water when the paste sticks to the kadhai and continue braising.
Once the raw smell goes away, add the tomato paste and the runny paste of dry spices.
The key to a good Fish Kaalia is stirring the pot and patience.
Cover and braise adding a little water at a time so that the paste doesn't burn.
This should take you at least 15 minutes by which time the spices will begin releasing oil.
Now, add the fried potatoes, sugar and the raisins, cover and cook for a further 5 minutes on medium heat.
Add around 1½ cups of hot water and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and cover.
Once the potatoes are cooked, gently introduce the fried fish into the gravy.
Flip the fish steaks just once.
Simmer the Fish Kaalia until the consistency is like a sauce, neither too thick nor runny.
This should take around 5 minutes.
The fish and potatoes will soak up some of the gravy so it will thicken by the time you serve it.
- Sprinkle the chopped coriander leaves, whole green chillies and add the garam masala, the ghee, and take off heat.
Keep covered for at least 10 minutes so that the aromas are absorbed into the gravy and do not dissipate.
Transfer to a serving dish, the shallower the better, so that the fish pieces do not break while serving.
Serve hot with steamed rice.
Note: Bengali garam masala is equal portions cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ground to a powder. There is no need to roast the spices.
The taste of the gravy should not be overly sweet, but should have just a hint of sweetness to balance the sour from the tomato paste.
You might consider serving Maachher Kaalia with Swarupa Dutt's Shoshar Torkari.
Those on a low-carb or diabetic diet should omit the potato, sugar, raisins and ghee in the recipe and fry the fish in an air-fryer.