Maach Over Matter: Tiny Fish Is Sustainable, Healthy & Delicious
Image Credit: Eating small fish can be a healthy and sustainable practice. Image Credits: Pexels

Ask any Bengali, anywhere, or people from other fish-eating communities of India, and you’ll know just how deep the love for small fish is. In most regions of India, small fish are spiced and fried—a sort of chip that you can have without any dip, but with everything from rice and lentils to khichdi. Growing up as a Bengali living beyond the region, for me, small fish like Mourala or anchovies, sardines, herrings, etc were an occasional and much-welcome treat. Trips to Kolkata were full of family members not only sharing various kinds cooked in various forms, but also retelling the benefits of eating these small fish, also known as Choto Maach in Bengali.

In recent years, however, the consumption of small fish for both health and taste has decreased—this, despite the fact that fresh fish delivery has increased, especially for all sorts of cuts and kinds. In a recent Instagram post, Chef Thomas Zacharias also highlighted this issue: “Somehow, over the years, the quantities and diversity of chotomaach cooked in Kolkata has reduced, and only certain varieties of fish like Ilish and Rohu are getting consumed and hence overfished.” He continued that despite this change, eating small fish remains a part of the fabric of Bengali cuisine and culture. “Most often you can or must buy these chotomaach jaanto i.e. live. They span across numerous genus and species like catfish, mullets, eels, shellfish, mudskippers, molluscs, carps and more,” he explains. “Each species also represents the region’s many facets of terroir spanning across rivers, ponds, farms, paddyfields and mangroves. And last but definitely not the least, every community and family have their own favourite maach and way of preparing it.”

The Health Benefits of Eating Small Fish

The primary reason why people include small fish in their diet is not the taste, but the health aspect. While all fish are packed with protein, small fish are particularly nutrient-dense. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, small fish like anchovies, herrings, sardines and mackerel promote good heart health. A great source of vitamin D, these fish also pack quite the iodine punch. Studies have shown that those who consume these fish tend to have a lower risk of cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s at a later age.

What’s more, eating small fish can also prevent the onset of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Small fish consumption is also linked to lower prevalence of asthma and other lung issues, healthy vision (even in old age), improved sleep quality, etc. Studies also show that small fish also have very low levels of mercury and other contaminants, making them safe for consumption even when bigger fish are. Clearly, eating a wide variety of small fish is beneficial for health. 

Why Eating Small Fish Is Sustainable

Overfishing is a major climate and food issue these days. Due to overfishing of large fish, especially of varieties like salmon and tuna—both of which are predatory fish—their supply has depleted all over the world. And yet, because eating large fish is easier, the demand for these large fish varieties never truly goes down. This has led to unsustainable fish farming practices, which are not only increasing fish contamination but also impacting our water bodies negatively. 

The reason why eating small fish is definitely more sustainable, is simple. Whether fished or farmed unsustainably, larger fish like salmon need to be fed tonnes of protein in the form of smaller fish. So, the salmon you enjoy actually grew strong eating the same herrings, sardines and anchovies! Then why not go straight to the source and consume those very fish? Doing this is not only a sustainable practice in itself, but can also eliminate the need for unsustainable practices that are used to grow large fish varieties.

Making Small Fish Delicious

For many, the problem with buying small fish from the market lies in cleaning it up properly. Gutting small fish varieties like mackerel is definitely more difficult, but there are some easy solutions too. You could ask your local fishermen and fish vendors to gut and clean the fish for you. You could also opt for fish delivery services which send in fresh and clean fish—vendors like Licious and Fresh To Home offer these services across India.

Now if you’re wondering how to cook small fish at home, then that’s the easiest thing ever! I feel a simple salt and turmeric marinate—the most common Bengali fish marinate—suffices to turn fish into delicacies once fried. Frying fish in mustard oil can definitely elevate its flavour. If you want something spicier, opt for a marinate of salt, turmeric powder, cumin powder, ginger-garlic paste, red chilli powder and garam masala. A sprinkling of lemon juice on these fried fish can also elevate the dish to another level.