Tracing the Fish-ey Connection with Murer Ghonto

While my timeline is flooded with delicious pictures of assorted pakodas and equally scrumptious looking chutneys, the soothing melody of the raindrops on the lush green leaves and the concrete porch and the charming wind calls for slightly complicated flavors. 
I have lived in western Odisha all my life. Contrary to the eastern half of the state where the humidity suffocates you, the western counterpart and its scorching dry heat drains the life out of your body. So while the crisp chill lurks in the air, it feels like it is finally time to pamper your taste buds. Weekends are for elaborate meals anyways. A plate of steamed rice with murer ghonto is pure bliss. Trust me, every bangal reading this would blindly oblige.
Early morning rains puts my mother in a very good mood. My culinary escapades take shape when she happily agrees to participate in the drill. This Sunday, when I woke up, she was sipping on her third cup of tea. She tries to maintain a straight face and declares that baba had finally had the time to visit Mustaq uncle, one of those numerous people who worked under him and now sold fish. This means that there was going to be fresh, good quality fish for lunch.

Groggily, as I reached out for my cup of tea, the conversation slowly shifts to the part where she discusses fondly about her being the only bangal amongst a bunch of ghoti friends. The mention of the words like jhal muri, aloo kabli and college forces me to make an instant calculation of the exact year. The next thing I know, I can imagine a bunch of college girls dressed in bright cotton sarees, sporting long, thick braids, laughing and having a good time. One woman, in particular, points to the grass and mocks at my mother about how bangals can whip up something delicious from the fresh, maidan’s grass. As the conversation takes a slight detour, we are contemplating not splitting the fish’s head but perking up some murer ghonto.

Unlike the rest, my version of murer ghonto has the sweetness of the cinnamon bark, the sharp whiff from cardamom and the bay leaves, accompanied by the blunt, not so prominent taste of the cumin seeds that crackle in mustard oil. However, you must realize that the fried fish head will release some oil and hence, you must add just enough of it to sauté the onions and get a slightly, golden brown sheen on the sliced potatoes.
After adding the spices, as the gravy simmers, beat the fish head and some of the sliced potatoes with the back of your hanta to give it a characteristic ghonto-like consistency. As my mother would comment, “aloo gulo kirom jano cheye-cheye royeche, ektu hanta diye peta!”(It is as if the potatoes are staring at your face; mash them up a little with the back of the spoon.)
Both, to cross tomatoes off from the ingredients list and to fry the gobindo bhog chaal (a fragrant, short grained variety of rice used to make payesh, or the quintessential India dessert, the kheer) in some ghee was a mere preference. The acidity of the tomatoes does not quite work well with the warmth of the spices. However, again, that is a personal preference. Keeping the garam masala ground coarsely was just another conscious decision to add another dimension to the recipe. Letting the gentle sweetness from the masala and the short-grained rice soaked in all that fish-y goodness dominate, it is a remarkable addition to the ever-growing stash of innovative recipes you can perk up to feel like a gourmet cook.

Ghee, a tablespoon
Mustard oil, four tablespoons
Fish head, 100 grams, approximately
Gobindo bhog chaal, 50 grams
Bay leaves, two small leaves
Cardamom, two pods, split and grains slightly pounded to release flavors
Cinnamon bark
Green chilies, seven to eight in number, slit, but not deseeded
One medium onion, sliced
Two small potatoes, peeled and sliced
Cumin powder, a teaspoon
Coriander powder, a teaspoon
Red chili powder, a teaspoon (can be replaced with Kashmiri mirch powder)
Turmeric powder, half a teaspoon
Salt, as required
Sugar, a pinch
Water, two cups

In a kadhai, heat a teaspoon of oil and fry the rice grain until they are brown in color.
Set aside and heat two tablespoons of mustard oil. Coat the fish head in a pinch of turmeric powder and salt. Drop it skin side down in the hot oil and cover it immediately. In my case, an alert mother stood with a lid and a saranshi (an old school kitchen tool used to handle hot pots and pans in the kitchen) in hand. All I had to do was drop the fish head in the pan and stoop low! Once done, strain excess oil and set it aside.
Word of caution: Never, I repeat, never use tissue paper to soak up the excess oil from the fried fish head. The oil is flavor.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the kadhai and add the whole spices, namely, cumin seeds, torn bay leaves, lightly bashed cardamom pods and a half an inch long piece of cinnamon bark. Once the spices have released their flavors and begun to crackle a little, add sliced onions.
Once the onions become slightly translucent, add the sliced potatoes. Add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric powder and some salt. Wait for them to become golden brown in color.
Once the potatoes have taken on some color and your kitchen reeks of the heavenly whole spices, add half a teaspoon each of cumin powder and coriander followed by red chili powder.
Coat the potatoes in the spices evenly and add the coarsely ground garam  masala. Pour just enough water to the kadhai that the potatoes get soaked. Cover with lid and wait for the mixture to come to a gentle boil and add a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar. The fish head often has a slight bitter aftertaste. The sugar balances it by rendering a sweet undertone.
Dunk the fish head in the simmering mixture and cover it with a lid. As the moisture seeps in, it becomes easier to break the muro into smaller bits.
As the water dries up, the oil starts to appear on top. Keep stirring and switch off the gas once you notice that the bits of coarsely ground garam masala have started sticking to the pan.
An extra dollop of ghee just before serving is a luxury but the heavenly earthy smell and the aroma of the devi ghee is so sinful that it is very difficult to resist. 

Try it, or do you have tweaks of your own that you would like to share?
Go ahead; let the comment box be your canvas!

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