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Gourmet Secrets: A fish called bhetki

West Bengal’s queen of seafood outclasses all that’s available on both coasts of India

brunch Updated: Jan 06, 2018 23:52 IST
Karen Anand
Karen Anand (left) and chef Maitreya Sen at Hyatt Regency in Kolkata
Karen Anand (left) and chef Maitreya Sen at Hyatt Regency in Kolkata

I used to believe that the coast from Mumbai down to Kerala yielded the most flavoursome fish. That was until I discovered fish from West Bengal. After visits to Kolkata over several years (alas there are few Bengali restaurants in the country which represent and do justice to the fine cuisine of West Bengal), I now know what it is to savour the soft sweet flesh of a lake or river fish like Rohu (rui), Hilsa (ilish) and bhetki (although the latter two are also caught in estuaries but that’s more a technicality).

Fresh and dignified

Apart from eating fish, I was keen to see fish in the flesh so to speak, so I set off one morning, braving the traffic, to Manektala fish market in north Kolkata. There I was awakened by the freshness of the day’s catch – rui maach, shiny silvery hilsa, bhetki, live crab, soft shell crab and mounds of other smaller fish – all in an environment that smells of the sea and lakes and not stale fish. Other fish markets like Gariahat give you a similar experience but Manektala, in the heart of the traditional north, is where I chose to begin my fishy journey.

Placed on mounds of crushed ice like bejeweled deities or laid out neatly on bright green banana leaves, fish is worshipped in this city. Kolkata bhetki, a locally caught silver fish known as barramundi internationally, is West Bengal’s answer to sea bass. I have been eating a fish for many years in Goa known as ‘chonak’ and have recently discovered that it is also called sea bass, but it is the sea, not stream, variety. In an article by Vikram Doctor called 4 Fish and a Bhetki, he cites Paul Greenberg’s book 4 Fish, where Greenberg notes that sea bass is a catch-all term for fish of the perch family, found in seas near shore. These, he explains, were among the first fish to develop swim bladders, helping them to float better and removing the need to keep swimming to stop sinking. As a result their flesh is whiter, more delicate tasting, and has few bones, which is why everybody loves them. Bhetki is to Kolkata what the pomfret is to Mumbai.

While I find the uncontrollable local demand and therefore exorbitant price of pomfret quite frankly ridiculous, I don’t have the same view of bhetki which has managed to retain its dignity in the fish world whether it’s called chonak, seabass, bhetki or barramundi. Smothered in a paste of mustard and green chilli and steamed (paturi), it is ecstasy. Soaked in curries like shorshe maach, maacher jhol and doi maach, it is superior in flavour to any foreign cod, salmon or snapper. It is also fried plain or with a coating of poppy seeds for fish and chips!

Bombay bhetki or Goan chonak is a sea fish. They are larger than the Kolkata variety and their flesh, though soft, white and delicious, smells of the sea and has a slightly ‘coarse’ texture. This is perfect baked or as a fish tikka. The Kolkata variety is a delicate Queen compared to her west coast slightly masculine, King.

Bring on the sea

I have always felt the Kolkata bhetki is too special to ruin with masala and too delicate to even fry. I found a chef who felt the same way. Chef Maitreya Sen of the Hyatt Regency Kolkata has trained in India, so he knows his bhetki from his Bombay duck and then he briefly trained in Italy at Il Sole di Ranco on Lake Maggiore under 2 star Michelin chef Davide Brovelli, where he learned to appreciate the value of local produce. “In fact, often the chef used to go and catch the fish himself since he wanted it really fresh for raw carpaccio,” he says.

Sen uses bhetki for a dish of fish baked in a salt crust. This elegant, but technically exacting Mediterranean seafood dish is La Cucina’s tribute to the fish-loving people of Kolkata. This purist recipe from the Gargano coast of South East Italy highlights the fish’s firm white flesh, beautiful soft texture and supreme flavour. Using salt (which also comes from the sea) to bake the bhetki helps to seal in its juices, leaving the fish incredibly moist and flaky.

The technique of baking a whole fish in a salt crust is claimed by many cuisines (from Spain to France, Italy, Morocco and East Asia). The dish is also very theatrical if the crust is broken table side. When this technique was developed a few hundred years ago, this dish would have been expensive to make because of the huge amount of salt needed to prepare it. In all likelihood, it would have been a feast dish or reserved only for the wealthy and prosperous.

To add a local touch, we squeezed a few drops of juice from the exquisitely scented local Gondhoraj lime. Below is Chef Maitreya Sen’s recipe from Hyatt Regency Kolkata.

The technique of baking a whole fish in a salt crust is claimed by many cuisines from Spain to France, Italy, Morocco and East Asia

Salt crusted bhetki

Serves 4

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Ingredients:

1 kg whole baby bhetki, gutted (skin and scales intact)

Marinade:

½ tbsp lime juice

5 tbs olive oil

Salt crust

4 cups sea salt

3 egg whites

Method:

Marinade: Mix the olive oil and lime juice in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

Salt crust: Whisk the sea salt and egg whites in a separate bowl and set aside.

Bhetki fish: Wash the fish (with skin and scales intact) and pat dry. Rub the marinade over the entire fish, including the belly cavity. Place the fish in the centre of a large baking dish, leaving about 1”- 2” around the fish. Cover the whole fish with the sea salt and egg white crust mixture. Place the salt-encrusted fish in a pre-heated oven for 30 minutes at 190°C/374°F. Remove from the oven and let the fish rest for 5 minutes.

To serve: Crack the crust on the fish with the back of a spoon and gently peel away the salt, scales and skin. Carefully lift fish off the tray and onto a serving plate. Serve with buttered potatoes. Garnish with parsley, broccoli and lime wedges.

Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.

This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on January 21.

From HT Brunch, January 7, 2018

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