As submitted to coursera.org:
Think of Bengalis, and can bhaat (rice) with macher jhol (watery fish stew) be far away? For the first two decades of my life, before hostel food, self cooked food and mixed marriage food took over, the combination was the food that I had for most of the meals, with only a few gaps in between. I have always taken it for granted that traditional Bengali households consume this with great regularity, but have never really got down to dissecting the reasons for the same. The obvious ones are the geography and the local availability. The plains of Bengal make the area ideal for rice cultivation. And the rivers flowing through the plains provide for plentiful fish. Before the advent of the food distribution network, where we get all kinds of food everywhere, albeit at a cost, local availability was the deciding factor in the choice of food. And not everybody needed to go to rivers for fish; for some there were enough to catch in the house ponds as well. I can picture a scene very well before my eyes (now mind you that was before ladies like me did the shopping): the head male in the family arranges for the rice and the fresh fish. The fish could be a big one in the league of rui (rohu) or catla (Indian carp), or numerous tiny ones like mourala (a variety of gourami) or puti (swamp barb). At this point the ladies of the house take charge; folk songs talk about the ritual of preparing the fish for the meal: removing scales, cutting into appropriate pieces so that everybody gets a fair share. As meal time approaches, while the rice is cooked, the fish is fried. In go the nigella seeds in spluttering mustard oil, followed by chopped tomatoes, green chillies, ground turmeric, ground ginger and ground cumin, optionally with one or more vegetables: potato, cauliflower, eggplant, likely to be fried in advance. In go salt and water, and once the vegetable if any is cooked, floating coriander leaves go in the bubbling water, soon joined by fried fish steaks. The gravy is left intentionally watery so that it can be mixed with rice. The quick turnaround time, the easy digestion and relatively less expensive constituents are certainly aspects that ensure that the dish is cooked at such frequency, over the numerous other fish recipes that Bengalis have up their sleeves: be it in mustard gravy, be it with grated coconut, be it in onion-tomato gravy - which by and large are reserved for occasions (though needless to say rising prosperity today means special dishes are not special any more). But above all, what makes the stew a top favourite is the fact is that it is simply delicious to eat when it is piping hot with the freshness of the fish and the mild aroma of the spices. Today in Nairobi, where the freshwater fish that I get is a frozen fillet sent at least two days back from Lake Victoria, I am reminded more and more of the taste of the macher jhol, just as my mother cooks it.