Tilapia Macher Dhone Kalia — Bengali style fish in spicy coriander sauce

Tilapia Macher Dhone Kalia — Bengali style fish in spicy coriander sauce

 “Ae-mmaa, Baangali-r blog e mach nei?” (oh, a Bengali’s blog has no fish recipe?) said a “Maashima” (that’s how Bengalis formally address an elderly lady). “Chingri ache” (there are some on shrimps), I explained. “Chingri ki mach holo?” (shrimps are no fish!), came back the sharp response.

I know. I know. Not that fish wasn’t cooked in my household. In fact, they regularly featured for supper on our table. Kintu Baangali bole kotha. Pran bhore khaabo, na photo tule likhbo? (But being a Bengali, I focused more on eating them up, than clicking pretty pics of my fish and writing about them!) Embarrassing isn’t it? Believe me, my kids and the Hubbyman have a bigger “Fish-tooth” than me. No one willingly agrees to wait till I’m done shooting the plated fish! And of course there was more to this and that, and everything in between my often mundane life that kept me from posting a decent Baangali macher recipe all this while! Although I did publish the delicious Pomfret Moilee recipe very recently. 

If you had followed my stories, you’d know my latest trip to the Farmer’s market. That day, we also brought some Tilapia fish with the pretty Pomfrets you saw on my last post. Tilapia gave us two major reasons to be happy (although happiness needs no reason, if a dead fish meets a Bengali at the other end!). One, because Tilapia is a freshwater fish — and Baangalis laabb pukur aar nodir mach (Bengalis love fishes from lakes, ponds and rivers). Second, this fish was fresh caught, not frozen — and thus wasn’t being eaten on it’s 2nd death anniversary! 

Hubbyman had been longing for a macher kalia since a long long time, but his wifey hadn’t cared much. She rather paid more attention in doing what her kids loved of fish. Fish fries, fish pies, fish cutlets, fish fingers, fish stuffed veggies, fish pudding, baked fishes, fish chowder, fish with mixed veggies, Muri ghonto, fish sandwiches, humble macher jhol and all…I made almost every fish based food I knew under the sun, BUT the KALIA!! So, I owed this Kalia to S, you see…and couldn’t escape making it this time.Tilapia Macher Dhone Kalia -- Bengali style fish in spicy coriander sauce

Gastronomically defined, a “Kalia” is a vegetable, fish or meat based dish from Bengal, with a rich, spicy and often tomato based sauce. It is often considered a middle-born between the “jhal” and “jhol” sisters. So Kalia isn’t as dry as a usual “jhal” and definitely not half as runny as the comforting humble “jhol”.

I call the one I made “Dhone Kalia“. Dhone in Bangla means coriander. And this Kalia relies heavily on the generous amount of coriander seeds and cilantro (coriander leaves) that goes into it’s sauce. Though parts of the same plant, the seeds and the leaves have distinct flavors (albeit there is still that hint of similarity you’d expect them to show). Coriander seeds when crushed have prominent citrus overtones and taste warm, spicy (of course!). On the other hand cilantro is delectably aromatic, with a very slight soapy aftertaste. When blended together and added into the sauce, these two provide quite a synergistic aromatic punch to the dish. I let these predominate this Kalia. The other few ingredients act more as enhancers than suppressors of the “coriander blend”. And I love it that way! Apart from the time it takes to ritualistically fry the fish pieces rubbed with turmeric and salt (before dunking them in sauce), this recipe is fairly quick. And I patiently did my mach bhaja (or fish fries) like a true Baangali ginni (meaning wife). Once fried, all you need to do is blend the spices/ingredients together, saute them, dilute, simmer and add fish pieces. To save time the day you treat your guests with this delicacy, fry the fishes ahead of time, the day before and refrigerate. You could also blend the ingredients and keep them frozen or refrigerated for a day or two. Thaw, simmer and add fishes to the sauce right before serving, to make your life easier. The other best thing is how you could adapt this recipe for any fish…essentially, most freshwater fish would taste as great in this sauce! 

This fish preparation is aromatic, warm, spicy and very scrumptious. It’s great for any special occasion or celebration, and makes a wonderful everyday meal when paired with steamed white rice or chapati. Make this kalia soon, and it’ll make your day interesting…I promise. In the meantime, I’ll go catch that “Maashima” to tell her “Aamaar blog tao akhon Machh-e Bhat-e Bangali” (meaning ‘my blog is now a Bengali by fish and rice too’!)

Tilapia Macher Dhone Kalia -- Bengali style fish in spicy coriander sauceINGREDIENTS

Serves 4

  • 1.5 lb or 700 gms Tilapia fish (cleaned head on, and sliced) — I used 9 pieces, including muro (or fish head)
  • 1/2 of a medium onion (or 1 small onion), chopped
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 2 dry Indian red chillies (or adjust amount to heat preference)
  • 3 Indian hot green chillies (or adjust amount to heat preference)
  • 4 fat garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, cleaned, peeled and chopped
  • 1.5 tsp ground turmeric (haldi)
  • 1/2 tsp kalonji or kaalo jeere or nigella seeds
  • 1 heaped tbsp coriander seeds
  • 10 to 15 (or 1 handful) fresh Cilantro/Coriander leaf twigs with stems on
  • About 1/2 US cup or 120 ml cooking grade mustard oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Some shredded cilantro for garnish


Tilapia Macher Dhone Kalia -- Bengali style fish in spicy coriander sauce
Fried fish pieces
  1. Rinse the fish pieces gently in a colander and drain out all the water. Rub the pieces with 1 tsp of turmeric and 1 tsp salt.
  2. Heat 3/4th of the mustard oil in a small karahi over medium heat. When the oil is sufficiently hot, carefully drop 2 or 3 fish pieces at a time taking care that they don’t stick to each other. Once the side down is fried and is a uniform golden yellow color, carefully use a turner to flip the fish pieces. Once the fishes are fried nicely on both sides, take them out into a tray. Repeat this step till all the pieces are fried. (If required, replenish some mustard oil in the karahi)
  3. In a clean and dry frying pan, dry roast the coriander seeds over medium heat. Stir so they don’t burn. Roast till they’re slightly browned and release aroma. Take off from heat, let cool. 
  4. Wash the cilantro in a colander and drain all excess water.
  5. In a blender, add the chopped tomatoes first, then the onions, chilles (green and red), roasted coriander seeds, ginger, garlic and cilantro. Blend to a smooth paste. 
  6. Add the remaining mustard oil in a larger karahi or a frying pan, and heat the oil over medium heat. Add the kalonji. Let splutter for a quick 2 or 3 seconds. 
  7. Carefully transfer the spice paste from the blender into the karahi. Add remaining turmeric. Saute with quick stirs for about a minute. Cover cook the spice mix on low-medium heat for about 2 more minutes, till you see large bubbles on the paste and it releasing oil from the sides. 
  8. Add about 1 cup of water (8 oz or 250 ml) and a little salt. Add the fish head and cover cook over medium heat for about a minute. Flip and turn the head. Add all the fish pieces carefully, and gently dunk them in the sauce (without pressing them much to break).
  9. Cover cook and simmer for about 1 to 2 minutes, till the fish pieces soak in the sauce flavors and soften slightly. Flip them carefully mid-way. (Over cooking will result in the pieces breaking away!). 
  10. Take off from heat, taste-test for salt, garnish with some shredded cilantro and serve with steaming Basmati rice and fresh garden salad. What else do you need for a good day?



  • Kalia isn’t a dry dish, nor has a thin and runny sauce/gravy.
  • Be careful with the amount of salt you add in step-8, since the fishes were already rubbed with salt. Add very little salt. Test and adjust later, if you like more.
  • A narrow bottom deep frying pot uses way lesser oil while shallow-frying and provides more oil to fish contact (thus, I use a small karahi to fry my fishes). If you are using a flat bottom frying pan, you’ll need more oil to shallow fry. You may then have to reserve some of this oil for later use in some other curry or a vegetable. 
  • Step-2, carries a risk of hot oil splatter and generates high smoke (move away from the stove and switch on exhaust fan for some relief!).
  • If you do not like the pungent flavors of mustard oil, use any vegetable oil you like.
  • If Tilapia isn’t readily available to you, feel free to use the fish you get. This recipe can be adapted for most fishes, especially freshwater ones.
  • To save time the day you treat your guests with this delicacy, fry the fishes ahead of time, the day before and refrigerate. You could also blend the ingredients and keep them frozen or refrigerated for a day or two. Thaw, simmer and add fishes to the sauce right before serving them, to make your life easier.
  • If you are using fish fillets for this recipe, fry them gently and very lightly, and only till their color changes, before you proceed with making the coriander sauce.
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