Know your Onions

Fishy Business - An illustrated glossary of Indian Fish -2. Pomfret


Fishbutton_2 Pomfret is the party fish in this part of the world. If fish is served, at a lunch or dinner occasion, it has got to be pomfret. No Parsi wedding is complete without it . Pomfret takes pride of place on the menu and justifiably so. It has a delicate flavour, a central bone and is not too fishy.

When eating sea food I am almost spineless. Which means I don't like to fish the bones out of my mouth and prefer something not too spiky. Most Bengalis are adept at separating the bones from the flesh, even while chewing, a talent which I envy. It enables them to enjoy even the boniest of fish. They also crunch up fish skeletons with alacrity. Many sea food lovers would choke over lesser carcasses. I am told that Bengalis attribute their highly developed intellect (ahem) to their fish intake, which is pretty steep when compared to other communities .

Sadly, the price of silver pomfret has gone through the roof and it has become a delicacy for the wrong reasons. The fish monger slices each piece of fish like a diamond cutter works on each facet of a gem. Slowly and deliberately, setting each precious chip aside however microscopic.

Pomfret is also known as Butterfish, and is available throughout India, perhaps to a greater degree in Maharashtra. The three varieties are :

Silver Pomfret

Silver Pomfret (Pampus argenteus) is known as Vichuda or Paplet in Gujerati, Saranga, Chandava, Papleet or Paplet in Marathi, Pomfret or Chandi in Bengali, Chandee or Ghia in Oriya, Chanduva or Nallachanduva in Telugu , Karuvaval in Tamil, Avoli, Velluvolli , Velutha Avoli in Malayalam, Manji or Thondrette in Kannada,Surangat in Konkani, Silver Pomfet or white pomfret in the UK, Palometon platero in Spain, Lowandg in Indonesia and Ilak in the Phillipines.

White Pomfret
Pampus chinensis (Chinese pomfret)
which is often known by the same common name as the silver pomfret in different regions of India though it is not as widespread,

Black Pomfret

and Black Pomfret , Parastromateus niger which is known as Halwa in Hindi, Marathi and Gujerati , Karauthakoli or Karuvolli or Vellavoli in Malayalam, Karuvavalor, Vavval, or Vellaivaval in Tamil, Thellachanduva or Nallachanduva in Telegu, Thondrotte in Kannada, Slade or Butterfish in Australia, Palometa Negra in Spain, Black Pompano, Black Pomfret or Sweep in the U.S, Castoline Noire in France, Gebel in Indonesia, Kuro-Aji-Modoki in Japanese and, what do you know, Doggie in Australia

Of the three species the Silver pomfret is most common. Black pomfret is also widespread and Chinese pomfret, though familiar on the East coast, is rare on the West coast and not as readily available as the other two. Pomfret is fished extensively in the Arabian Sea from September to January and the season is at its height from October to the end of the year.
I like to bake pomfret as it retains its flavour and does not fall apart. Here is a recipe which always turns out well.

Baked Masala Pomfret Packets

To serve 4


4 small silver pomfret about 6" in length and about 300-400 gms each. Fillet , wash and clean,without removing the skin.
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp haldi / turmeric

1/2 coconut grated.
1-4 green chillies minced.
2 inches ginger peeled and roughly chopped
8 cloves garlic.
1 cup chopped coriander leaves
1 tsp jeera /cumin powder
2 tsp dhania/ coriander powder
1 tbsp lime juice
1/2 piece of gur / jaggery or 1/2 tsp of brown sugar.


Make a mixture of the salt, pepper,chilli powder and turmeric and rub on the insides of the fillets. In a blender, grind all the other ingredients into a smooth paste . Place a fillet of pomfret on a piece of foil. Spread a generous amount of paste on it. Cover with the top fillet. Wrap into a neat parcel leaving a tiny pocket of air on top and place on a baking dish. Do the same with the other 3 pomfrets.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. When hot, place dish with fish inside and cook for 15-20 minutes till the flesh is white and flakes when tested with a fork.
Remove and serve hot with chapathies or rice. This is also delicious with crusty bread and a tomato salad.

(If you can get hold of some banana leaves you could use them instead of foil . If wrapped in banana leaves, steam the parcels in a covered steamer on the stove top for half a hour.)


Fishy Business- An illustrated glossary of Indian Fish - 1. Bombay Duck


Fishbutton_3 Moving home means major upheaval in India. More so when the move is from one state to another.  Beside the usual challenges one has to face, like packing and unpacking, finding an appropriate place for everything, setting up the kitchen from scratch, finding new schools, and new doctors and dentists and friends, there is one more important, basic necessity: acquiring a quick knowledge of the local language in order to feed one's family.

I mean, try finding the word for nutmeg in Chennai, red snapper in Cochin, lotus seeds in Calcutta, or bottle gourd in Chandigarh. You would have to be a walking Tower of Babel.

Many Indian cookbooks give a cursory nod in the direction of this problem by adding a glossary of ingredients in different languages at the end of the book. Most prove to be vastly inadequate, if not entirely misleading. And let me tell you from experience, a spice by any other name does not taste as sweet. In fact, it can be positively ghastly.

Supermarkets, where one can identify everything by sight, do not exist in many towns and cities. One has to depend on the small, but well stocked, general store, where everything is out of sight and will be produced if asked for by the right name. So this knowledge of the local name for ingredients becomes critical.

My biggest problem has been with fish. In the early days of my cooking years it was easy enough when I walked through the 5.a.m. catch at Sassoon Docks in Bombay, picking up a kilo or more of prawns from a mound here, and a couple of pomfret from another mound there. The fisherwomen selling the fish had no weighing scales, and it was all an approximate amount, with prices negotiated on the spot. They found it quite amusing to sell small quantities to me, being more used to the wholesale buyers who generally came each morning and bid for one fisherman's entire catch.
I did not always know the name of the fish, and learned about the taste and the way it could be cooked through sheer trial and error. Some years later we moved to London and I had no idea what to ask the fishmonger. A fish that tastes like pomfret? The closest thing to surmai (by then, already my favourite fish)? By the time I got to know my fish facts we were in Delhi or some other part of India, where the process began all over again.
A moveable feast is not as easy as it sounds.
For all those who have suffered from life on the move, or even for those who travel for pleasure and would like to know what to ask for, or what sea creature they are about to ingest, here is the first in a 10-part series of an illustrated glossary of some of the commercial fish of India.

Bombay Duck all in a Row

I must begin with Bombay Duck, which, with its overbite, is possibly one of the most determinedly ugly fish ever seen. Commonly known as Bombil in Marathi and Oriya, Bamalohor and Nehare in Bengali, Bumla and Gulchi in Gujerati, Coco-mottah in Telegu,Vanharavasi in Tamil, it is also known by different names in other countries. Bumalo in Spain, Bumblim in Portugal, Bummalo in Germany, Tenaga-mizutengu in Japanese and Bombay Duck in most other European and Scandinavian countries.

This fish constitutes a major part of the total catch in India, and most of it comes from the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra, Gujerat and Saurashtra. Bombay Duck or Harpodon nehereus is also caught in substantial quantities in the Bengal estuaries and on the Andhra and Orissa coastlines in Masulipatnam and Jaffrabad. Some of it is sold fresh, but, as it is a very soft fish, it is susceptible to spoilage, so much of it is sun dried. A common sight in all fishing villages along the Maharashtrian coast are the ropes strung on bamboo poles where they are hung by the teeth. The familiar smell of drying fish follows you when walking on the beaches along the western coast.

Its somewhat misleading name is supposed to have come from the fact that the dried fish was carried, in the days of yore, by the Bombay Mail train and stank its way through the entire journey, gaining the train and its goods some notoriety. Dak being the Hindi word for Mail, Bombay Dak (i.e. Duck) became the name of the fish.

Dried Bombay Duck for Sale

It is such a favourite amongst Maharashtrians that one well known Maharashtrian cricketer was named Bombay Duck for his seven test zeroes against Australia. Bombay duck is very popular among the CKP community. I am grateful to Deepa Chitre for the following recipe, which is a customary way to cook this fish.

8-10 fresh Bombil ( Bombay Duck (), cleaned and cut into 2 inch pieces,
6 medium size potatoes, preferably round in shape,
3 tablespoons garlic paste
1 tablespoons red chili powder,
1/2 tbsp haldi (turmeric)
1 tablespoon salt
5-6 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves,
4-5 chopped green chilies (to taste),
5 tbsp fresh coconut grated,
4-5 tbsp oil

Thoroughly wash the slices of Bombay Duck in running water. Clean and scrub the potatoes(they will be used with the skin).
Dry the fish and coat the slices with a mixture of garlic paste, chili powder, haldi and salt.
Cut the potatoes into thin slices. Coat with haldi, chili powder, salt, coriander leaves, green chilies and grated coconut.
Put together the potatoes and Bombay Duck, and let the mixture marinate for 1 hour.
Heat oil in a thick bottomed vessel , or kadhai. Add the potatoes and fish and let it all cook on a low flame. Initially toss the mixture (instead of stirring), to ensure that the oil spreads through the entire mixture. (The pieces of fish break very easily if stirred.)
Cover and cook till the potatoes are done. Staunchly resist the temptation to open the lid and stir.

While serving take care that the fish pieces do not break.
Serve hot. Do not reheat.

Next fish online:

Ref:Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2006.FishBase.
World Wide Web electronic publication., version (05/2006).

How to make Khoya


Boiling down milk

Milk based sweets are the most popular kind of dessert in Indian cuisine, several of which require the use of khowa/khoya. Here is how to make it.


  • 5 litres full cream buffalo milk

Take a thick bottomed pan or a kadhai , the bottom half of a pressure cooker or something like a Le Creuset casserole. Pour in the milk and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to low and continue to cook, stirring every 5 minutes to mix any solids accumulated at the bottom of the pan.Do not let the solids burn. Keep cooking and stirring till the milk gets a really thick consistency.This will take a couple of hours.

Ready Khoya

Patience is the key to khoya.(If it was possible I'd say set up some kind of mixing machine going like an icecream maker. This is an idea for some inventor.Any takers?*) Let the khoya cool. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 days.

(5 litres of milk makes approximately 1 kilo of khoya)

*Ooops.There is already a manufacturer of a khoya making mixer out there....