So, honestly, I have often wondered why Kashmiris don’t eat more fish. The place is full of fresh water lakes and rivers. Fresh water fish, everywhere. And given conclusive proof of what we can do with just one ingredient – umm, hello Wazwan? – I have always thought it strange that there is really only one traditional way to cook fish. Ah, but like my dad would say, why mess with perfection, why try and reinvent the wheel, etc..
Kashmiris cook lamb/ sheep pretty much everyday, yes? And in a million ways – with shallots, yoghurt, vegetables, lentils. So it’s not even a conversation. Everyday there will be *syun* with which to eat the *batte*. Batte – our word for rice, is also our word for lunch/ dinner/ a meal. And Syun – our word for what you eat the batte with – almost always some sort of lamb/ sheep dish. It is a rare day indeed when you ask someone that universal eternal question : *syun kyah chhuv ronmutt?* (which roughly translates to what have you cooked today?), and they say *gaade*! But if they do, uff, it’s your lucky day.
Kashmiri fish curry – for want of a better word – is like nothing you’ve ever eaten before. We only cook fish in the autumn/ winter/ early spring months. No one eats fish in the summers. If the name of the month doesn’t have an R in it, you don’t eat fish in it. It’s the law. What?
And Kashmiri fisherwomen really do deserve a post all to themselves. The sassiest, cheekiest, most beautiful women you’ll ever see. In their pherans, the daejj/ scarf hanging loosely on their heads, and that big basket full of fresh fish balanced expertly on a ring made of hay, (is it?), which I always thought was a crown. They do the rounds early morning, just after having caught the freshest fish from your nearest lake/ river.
*Gaade haa chho*.
And when you call them in, they’ll scale, gut and clean your fish right in front of your eyes.
But the thing is of course that I live in London. And the fish you get here in the supermarkets – well you can pick stuff that’s scaled, gutted even filleted. So easy. But where’re the fun in that, eh.
Anyway, I digress. This post is obviously about to make your day 100% better. Because this post will show you how make the most delicious fish. Ever.
1 Kilo fish (any firm fleshed fish will do. In Kashmir it’s usually trout. I only had sea bass fillets to hand, so that’s what I used) – scaled, gutted, cleaned and cut into generous chunks
I have heard of this fish dish being cooked with 7 different vegetables in some parts of Kashmir. You can use one, some, or all of course. Here’s what I used:
3-4 White Radishes (mooli in Urdu/Hindi, mujje in Kashmiri) – scraped, washed and chopped in to 1/2 inch thick rounds. I used whatever leaves these had on as well.
3-4 Kohlrabis, and their greens (Kaddam in Urdu/Hindi, monjje in Kashmiri) – peeled, washed, chopped in to generous chunks
You could also use –
2-3 Lotus stems (Nadrus) – washed thoroughly, cut in to chunks
Spring greens (Haakh) – washed, roughly torn.
6-7 fat cloves of Garlic – crushed
3-4 Shallots – chopped
Whole Spices –
4 Black Cardamom pods
1 inch Cassia stick
1-2 teaspoons of cumin seeds
1 teaspoons of fennel seeds
Ground Spices –
1-2 teaspoons of turmeric powder
1-2 teaspoons of Kashmiri red chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon of ginger powder
Magic ingredient –
Kashmiri spice paste – this is called vaerr, and will take this, and every other dish you ever make, up several notches.
First of all what you need to do is take a thick bottomed pan – since we are essentially deep frying here, a kadhai/ wok will work best. Pour in a generous amount of oil, and make sure it is super hot, before adding your fish to the pan. Now remember we are deep frying the fish, in batches if necessary – don’t put everything is there all at once. Just don’t. Also be aware that this will splutter. A lot. So a splatter guard, or a plain old lid is critical. What you are trying to do is deep fry the fish till the pieces are a deep golden-reddish-brown, and the flesh is pretty firm. Using a slotted spoon take the fish out.
Now in to this same pan, add your sliced radish slices, and fry them, not for too long, on both sides till they are slightly golden in colour. Again batch fry these, a few at a time, depending on how big your pan is. Use a slotted spoon to take them out and put them aside.
Now do the same with your kohlrabi chunks. Once these are sort of golden, take them out too.
Basically repeat this step with any and all of the veggies you are using. At the very end put the greens in and sizzle fry them for a few minutes.
At this stage you now have a variety of fried goodies looking lovingly at you. Sigh.
Next, you need to make the spice tempering. For this, look at the remaining oil in the pan – get rid of the excess, leaving just enough behind to make your masala tempering (you want the equivalent of about 5-7 tablespoons of oil).
In to this add your shallots. Fry till they’re soft and translucent. Add all your whole spices and fry for another couple of minutes till everything is nice and fragrant. Then add your crushed garlic, and fry for another minute or 3. Finally add all your ground spices and fry those for a bit. Turn the heat off.
If you have managed to find some vaerr and are feeling particularly brave then break a chunk off, put it in a bowl and pour a little boiling water on it. Use a spoon/ fork to sort of dissolve the vaerr in to a thin paste.
Now comes the funest part! Take a deep thick bottomed pan. And start of by arranging your fried radish slices all over the bottom. Top this off with a layer of fried fish. Then spoon some of the masala tempering all over. Then next layer – of the kohlrabi. Then the fish again. Then the spices. And so on and so forth till you’ve used all your goodies up. Except for the greens. The greens go right on top. Then pour the last of your masala. And then pour your vaerr paste all over.
Now all you need to do is add a bit of water. Say a cup or so, and put your pan on a high flame to bring everything to a boil. Oh and add salt to taste. At this stage cover and simmer, on as low a flame as you can, and let it cook for at least an hour. Huge deghs of fish would apparently be cooked overnight. But we’ll settle for an hour, eh.
That’s it you’re done. Serve with plenty of fluffy white rice. But remember, ideally you’ve got to let it cool down to room temperature before eating it. Oh and it ALWAYS tastes better the next day.