Probably more than half of a Bengali’s life is about fish…though many would swear it’s more than this share! They say “Machh-e Bhat-e Bangali” or a Bengali by Fish and Rice. But then, not every Fish and not every Rice. Rice here either means the Bengali parboiled rice or the fragrant short-grained rice in Bengal, locally known as “Gobindo Bhog”. And Fish is only fresh water fish – of course the two biggest and notorious exceptions to this rule are Ilish or Hilsa and Bagda Chingri or giant Tiger prawns (and if prawns are ever called fish, it’s here!). The two taken together, are cause for more than 90% of the iconic and eternal disputes between “Bangal and Bangali” (Bangladeshi Bengali and Indian Bengali) or the “Ghoti and Baati” (West Bengal natives as opposed to Bangladeshi natives). All this for a Fish? Seriously?? Why else do you think a “Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal” football match is a little more than a battle of two nations? Yes, it is that much about the fish…we die for it, we live for it!
Well, growing up away in the north Indian plains meant we were blissfully spared of this “Great Bengali Cultural Divide”. But being true to the Fish-loving community we belong to, we loved the occasional fish-feast at home. Only if Baba (what I call my Dad) was able to get some good fish from the local market. Living in a state with a very dry climate, freshwater pond and lakes were extremely uncommon, if at all they existed anywhere. And what was left of the once upon a time freshwater rivers, were patches of arid river beds with sparse grass – or the present-day cattle grazing grounds. Our local fish bazaar therefore ran on “transported fish” supply from eastern and southern parts of the country, along with a few rare and occasional “fresh catches” from any surviving water body nearby that was. Several days in a month, after office hours, Baba would visit this local fish market. Armed with his “Macher Thole” (a reusable and striped nylon Indian grocery bag), he would ride his Bajaj motor scooter to this 2- mile away destination in search of fresh fish. Most days in a row, he’d come home empty bagged – the fish being sold, hadn’t passed his quality control inspection. He would check the fish eyes, skin, smell and under-gills to ensure freshness and good quality. He had carried me on the rear-seat of his scooter to the fish market and demonstrated “how-to-tell-if the-fish-is-good” countless times until I knew it by heart (yes, ask me for a tutorial if you need one!).
Blessed were the days when he’d come home victorious! He’d triumphantly pull up the big freshwater prize by its tail, out of his “Thole” and hand it over to Ma (my Mom) in the Kitchen. Ma would then ceremoniously dress, clean, and cut the fish using a traditional Bengali “Boti” on the floor. Different portions of the fish would all be separately preserved and consumed. Fish body pieces would make the curries, Fish eggs would be fried into delightful spiced fritters and Fish head mostly for an amazing soulful melt-in-the-mouth “Muri Ghonto” – an ultimate, divine, moist, buttery and very Bengali “Fish Head Pilaf”.
Eating a big fish head is trickier than eating fish on bones. The trick pays off heavily – fish heads are way more juicy and tastier than fish meat. On the day of Annaprashan, when a couple-months old Bengali baby is ceremoniously fed his “first rice”, it is a tradition to have the baby “Lick” a fried Fish head! Yes!!! My first born had almost ended up smooching it (if only I could show you the picture that captured the moment!). I grew up hearing “Maach-er matha khele onek buddhi hobe” – Eating fish heads make you very intelligent and smarter. How? Because fish heads are rich in omega 3-fatty acids, I was told. The good fish-oils are amazing brain-foods. So I must eat a lot of fish heads. But what will I do with such large amounts of “acquired Buddhi”? I’d be sshhh-ed and no one ever told me the answer. I was also told that by eating the brains of these super swimmers, I’d learn to swim quickly. Alas, I never did!!
But you know what? I never really bothered if these folklore made sense to me or not. I loved “Muri Ghonto” and I always have… and I didn’t need to know anything else! This delicacy is one of my most favorite Bengali food. I can sustain a life on this diet. And my Ma makes the best Muri Ghonto I ever had. Nothing equals a laid back warm Sunday afternoon, sitting cross-legged at the dining table (yes!!) and maneuvering, sucking and working through the heavenly buttery sections of fish head. A bit of that gratifying mouthful, and you feel thankfully rewarded, no matter what complications in life or anywhere……Your eyes grabbing every chance of looking away from your plate once in a while, but your mind refusing to think anything else, and your heart cherishing every bit of the moment. Nothing is a priority then. Bengalis eat Muri Ghonto with plenty of time and eat it with hands. It is finger-licking good! And for children, using the fan shaped fish operculum bone (bony flap covering gills), to scoop a morsel of Muri Ghonto into mouth is super duper fun!!
Here is Ma’s Muri Ghonto doting recipe that has spoiled me!!
- 1 lb or 0.5 kg big freshwater Fish head (cut half lengthwise) -- preferably Rohu, Catla or Mrigal Carp fish heads
- 2 cups** Basmati Rice or short grain aromatic rice
- 1 Black Cardamom (Bari Elaichi)
- 3 Green Cardamoms (Choti Elaichi)
- 2 One inch Cinnamon sticks (Dalchini)
- 2 Bay Leaves (Tej Patta)
- 8-10 Cloves (Lavang)
- 1 tsp Cumin Seeds (Jeera)
- 2 large Potatoes
- 1 medium Tomato (chopped)
- 1 medium Onion (sliced lengthwise)
- Thick Thumb size Ginger (grated)
- 4 Large Cloves Garlic (grated)
- 2 Indian Hot Green Chilies (slit lengthwise)
- 2 tsp Turmeric (Haldi) Powder
- 1 tsp Ground Whole Spices (Garam Masala Powder) for a finish flavor (optional)
- 1 tbsp Clarified Butter (Ghee) for a finish flavor (optional)
- 1/4 Cup** fresh and chopped Coriander Leaves for garnish (optional)
- Salt to taste
- About 3 Cups** warm Water (to make rice)
- 1 Cup** Mustard oil
- **1 US cup = 190 gms uncooked rice or 240 ml water
- Wash, peel and divide each potato into 8 cubes
- Wash rice under running water, drain and set aside
- Wash thoroughly and clean the fish heads. Remove and discard the gills.
- Add 1 tsp of Turmeric powder and about 1 tsp (or as per taste) salt to the fish heads and rub to coat them
- In a dry and large heavy bottom cooking pot, heat the mustard oil
- When the oil smokes, carefully place 1-2 pieces of fish head (move away from the stove to avoid oil splash burns). Fry for a few minutes until the side is nice reddish brown. Turn the fish heads to fry the other sides. (This step may cause smoke. You may need to switch on the kitchen exhaust fan/hood!)
- Adjust stove heat to avoid the fish pieces from charring. Check and remove the fish heads from heat, once nicely done and brown. Keep the fried fish pieces in a container and let them cool down. (Do not take them out on a kitchen paper towel, because we do not want the "good fat" to seep out on the absorbing paper)
- Once cooled, coarsely break each fish head piece into 3-4 chunks and keep aside.
- In the same oil (that you used to fry fish) on medium heat, carefully throw in the whole spices (cumin seeds, cracked green cardamoms, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and black cardamom).
- As soon as the whole spices splutter, add the chopped onions and saute for a couple minutes until the unions turn translucent
- Add chopped tomatoes, slit green chilies, grated ginger and grated garlic. Saute and stir for a bit, until done.
- Add the potato cubes and the remaining turmeric powder and fry for about 1-2 minutes until they are nicely coated in the turmeric "sunshine".
- Now add the washed rice and mix and stir them all together for a minute.
- Add warm water and salt and place a lid to cover cook. Turn heat to low-medium at this stage.
- After about 10 minutes, or when the rice is half done, add the fish head pieces and mix the contents once. Place the lid back again and cover cook the pilaf on low heat till the rice and potatoes are done.
- Depending on the quality of rice grains and/or potatoes, you may have to add a little more water to cook Muri Ghonto.
- Traditionally in Muri Ghonto, the rice is delightfully moist, succulent, and slightly sticky (but NO gravy!). However, you may have to adjust the amount of water you add depending on whether you'd like your pilaf to be drier and fluffier or more moist and sticky.
- Once done, take the container off stove. Open the lid for a lovely lingering fishy "aroma" (yes, we are fish lovers!). Add the chopped coriander leaves, ghee and the garam masala powder and mix the contents nicely.
- Serve hot. Enjoy your Muri Ghonto with fresh garden salad and then have a happy Sunday siesta for a leisurely perfection!