The queen of Bengali festive menus, the Bhetki Paturi is a simple dish that celebrates the true flavours of produce, glorifies mustard, and revels in the Instagrammable visual drama of unwrapping a banana leaf pocket to reveal a golden delicacy within.
It might come as a surprise, but I didn’t eat fish for the first 24 years of my life. I hated the smell and the flavours, would cause major screaming matches at home, and just refused to give in. My parents tried everything — from whooping my ass to introducing me as many varieties as possible — but failed miserably in converting my mind and palate. My mother, dejected, finally gave in. I think it broke my father’s heart a little. “Bangali’r chhele maach khaao na!” (you’re Bengali and you don’t eat fish) was flung at me so frequently, from family functions to college fests, that I got into the habit of saying it myself right after I revealed my dark secret. I’m sorry, but I don’t eat fish. Yeah, I know, I’m Bengali. It’s shocking. And I would roll my eyes. Saved everybody a lot of trouble that way. My tone would be apologetic, because I think I bore a lot of guilt for letting down a community, for not being Bengali enough. I had to mug up Bengali rhymes, for school, that spoke romantically about the watering mouths of men and cats when wives would fry Ilish in mustard oil, and I couldn’t comprehend the allure, because I absolutely abhorred that stench. I would literally step out of our house and run off to the far end of the courtyard to escape it.
But, as I grew up, my palate started relenting, and allowing fish to be enjoyed, in very few forms. The Fish Fry was accepted, and quite enjoyed. I didn’t mind Fish Fingers either. And then, I tried the Bhetki Paturi one day. Here, I must discuss, academically, why I think I hated fish growing up. Firstly, while Bengalis do have a variety of fish, and a variety of recipes, and most of these delicious dishes are festive or twice-a-month specials. The basic everyday preparations generally are thin curries and broths, with potato, cauliflower, or pointed gourd (potol/parval), and that’s that. It is not surprising that I was just not interested in eating such mundane cooking every day. Secondly, fish do have problematic parts. The skin is often slimy and unappealing. Most fish have a lot of bones — your hands go stiff and cold by the time you are done with a piece of Hilsa or Tangra — and fish heads are not necessarily the prettiest bits. Prawns and lobsters can be daunting for a kid, and also have a smell that needs to grow on you. Other seafood wasn’t a part of the domestic kitchen, although I did become a fan of most of it later in life. The Bhetki Paturi didn’t have any problematic bits of the fish. Because it is a fillet, it has no skin, no bones, no head. The rectangle of clean, fatty flesh, is lathered in mustard paste and oil with spices and salt and chillies, wrapped in banana leaf, and steamed. That’s it. The end result is a decadently pillowy chunk of Bhetki fish, fragrant and pungent with the aroma of mustard, the taste layered with umami, heat, and spices, the steaming and sweating in the banana leaf lending a complexity that cannot be achieved by frying or roasting it as alternative renditions. The Bhetki or Barramundi or Asian Sea Bass’s sweet and creamy flesh become the perfect vehicle for the mustard-heavy dish, which is why it is the preferred fish for the Paturi. Hilsa is also Paturi-ed, but personally, I am not a fan. While the Hilsa is a fantastic carrier for mustard too, it has too much of a personality of its own, which tends to overpower the subtleties of the ingredients.
Once my mother saw that I had taken to the Paturi, she immediately started making it at home. I feel the Bhetki Paturi brought me back to eat fish and seafood again. When I started writing on food, my curiosity was piqued, and I began experimenting, on my own, away from the burden of Bengali identity and pride. I remember the turning point being in Goa, when I dug into a fantastic Grilled King Fish with a Barley Risotto and a Whiskey Butter Sauce. It was exquisite, and far from the uninspired, spice-laden curries of our country. A couple of Surmai and Bangda fries and Prawn Recheados later, I had slowly started appreciating the produce, the saline of the sea, the sweetness of the river, and that is when I remembered the Paturi again — a dish that truly celebrates the bounty of the land and the water of this country.
As Bengalis, I feel, the fish is so commonplace for us that we barely respect it. Some varieties enjoy preferential treatment, while others are a part of the crowd. Why do we not obsess over the humble Rohu and Bata as much as we swoon over the Hilsa and Chitol? Why have we not experimented to see what possibilities these produce might still have? I am sure there is a world beyond Jhol-Jhaal-Kaalia. Why have we not explored that? Even down south, fish curries are pounded with so many spices — either hot or sour/tangy — that the identity of the seafood is obliterated. I am sure many recipes have been forgotten, while many more are dying out regularly because every passing generation causes erosion of tradition and memory. So, while the star dishes like the Ilish Bhapa, Daab Chingri, Meen Curry, Fish Ambotik, the emblematic preparations of each community, will survive forever – overpriced and underwhelming at “specialty” restaurants – and the domestic Jhols and Jhaals will be cooked and consumed in our homes, we might be losing out on a treasure trove of other recipes, the lesser-known ones, the simpler ones, the no-frills ones, simply because we just don’t feel the need to explore and re-educate ourselves anymore.
Coming back to the Bhetki Paturi, it is still one of my favourite fish preparations in the world — and I have done my due diligence. Just light a fire, and allow these wonderful ingredients to do their magic — isn’t that the best kind of cooking?