One of the main dishes at any self-respecting Bengali’s kitchen during any traditional dinner party is the Shorshe Maach (fish prepared in a creamy coconut and mustard gravy). The luscious, dense dish is probably one of the crowning jewels of the Bengal culinary school. An otherwise pungent gravy, undercut by the heaviness of the coconut, Shorshe Maach literally stands for Mustard Fish. The dish is fairly simple to prepare, owing to minimal ingredients used, but the method of preparation takes a fair amount of time.
The fish, preferably ilish (hilsa), is slowly steamed after marinating it in a thick mix of black mustard seed paste, green chillies, salt, and mustard oil (which lends a pungency to the dish and is especially used in the east Indian states) or vegetable oil. The mustard oil is typical to many dishes hailing from this part of the nation owing to its potency, with an almost horseradish-like flavour. The fish pieces are kept that way for a few hours before it is transferred to the pan, where it is allowed to cook in low heat with a little water mixed with the marinade.
The combination of nigella seeds and mustard seeds has long been a culinary wonder that has been amply used in East Indian regions. The citrus flavour in the turmeric provides the perfect contrast to the subtly herbaceous and bitter aftertaste of the nigella seeds.
Traditionally, a Bangladeshi dish by origin, Shorshe Maach has since journeyed to India and has quickly become a favourite among Bengalis. The dish has evolved into other forms through the years.
The Paturi, for example, is a delicacy enjoyed by many in Bengal. Making of the Paturi essentially involves marinating the fish with the mustard, chilli and salt mix and then wrapping the succulent pieces in strips of banana leaves. These small fish pockets of sorts are then steamed for several hours. The natural flavour of the banana leaf seeps through the fish, giving it a fruity, smoky undertone. So Paturi could well be considered a culinary cousin to Shorshe Maach.