Today I cooked bhetki (Barramundi or Asian Seabass) in gravy of mustard paste (shorshe baataa). A very traditional fish preparation from the state of Bengal, this dish is a popular one not only amongst the Bengalis but also a cultivated taste for people from other states who relish fish. This spicy preparation is best complemented by rice and green chillies.
The key to the perfect mustard paste is to make it by hand and not in an electric grinder. The shil nora (grinding stone) is still seen in most Bengali households and I remember it as a permanent fixture next to my mother’s gas stove. She used to quickly grind the masala and add it to the dish cooking on the gas. On a day when she was running late and decided to add ready-to-use powdered condiments, we could immediately detect a change in the taste of the meal. Anyone who has tasted dishes with freshly ground condiments will know what I mean when I say that.
I have a shil nora at home, which I use for certain dishes. Though I must confess that I too have fallen prey to the electric grinder and the ready-to-use condiment powders. But for dishes like the shorshe baataa I always make it a point to use the traditional method.
Shorshe baataa is made from mustard seeds, turmeric powder, green chilies, and a pinch of salt. Mustard when not handled properly has the tendency to turn bitter and thus is the make or break factor of the dish. The trick is to briskly grind the mixture into a fine paste.
When I learnt to cook this particular dish, my teacher (a friend and not my mother) passed on a secret to getting the taste just right. She said that to ensure that the rhythm of my arms remained brisk and strong, I was to think of my mother-in-law and the way she managed to get my hackles up. And the anger/ irritation, which coursed through my mind with those thoughts, would fuel the grinding of the mustard paste. And the briskness would also ensure that the mustard wouldn’t taste bitter.
When she saw my startled expression, she had a good laugh and enlightened me that this was a story passed on from generation to generation. And even though I really don’t have much to be upset about with my mother-in-law, each time I grind the mustard paste, I always get this big smile on my face when I recall the ‘secret’ of a good paste.