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    The evolution of Patra ni Machhi: From coast to coast

    The evolution of Patra ni Machhi: From coast to coast

    The evolution of Patra ni Machhi: From coast to coast
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    By Suman Singh   IST (Updated)


    In the Indian subcontinent, seafood forms an integral part of the cuisine and when it comes to the coastal states, fish forms a staple along with rice.

    In the Indian subcontinent, seafood forms an integral part of the cuisine and when it comes to the coastal states, fish forms a staple along with rice.
    I remember my father describing a fish preparation he had eaten long back in his village in Odisha called ‘Patrapoda,’ fish wrapped in pumpkin leaves and baked in a clay stove till it was charred and had a smoky flavour.
    At that moment, his reminiscing of the dish had created an interest in me to explore the dish further. When I did my research, I was amazed as to what I discovered. Fish prepared with leaves wrapped around it was either steamed, fried or baked all across India’s coastline.
    Diversified Dish
    I discovered that various communities including Parsis, Maharashtrians, Goans, Odias and Bengalis have been traditionally preparing either steamed or baked fish either using a banana, mustard or a pumpkin leaf, with each of them imparting different flavours and giving the dish a unique taste.
    In the western coast of India, the dish is famously known as 'Patra ni Machhi.' In Bengal it’s called ‘Bhapa Illish,’ and in Odisha, it’s called 'Patrapoda.' Same dish, different ingredients, different styles of cooking and different names.
    The Parsis, who came from Iran (erstwhile Persia) and had settled on the western coast of India in today’s Gujarat, had called it ‘Patra ni Machhi.’
    ‘Patra ni Machhi,’ literally means fish wrapped in leaves and steamed. They would wrap a fillet or an entire fish in a banana leaf with a coconut green chutney made out of mint leaves (pudina), green chillies, coriander leaves (dhania) and other spices and cook with vinegar infused water.
    Food writer Kunal Vijayakar explained the difference between these dishes and it was very simple. The filing, he said changes from region to region. While Parsis and Maharashtrians mostly use a ‘coconut green chutney,’ Goans on the other hand, prepare stuffed fried fish with a red chutney known as ‘Rechaedo.’
    While on the coast facing the Bay of Bengal, Bengalis steam their ‘Hilsa’ fish using a spicy mustard sauce, called ‘Kashundi.’ In Odisha, as my father recalled, instead of steaming the fish, which is usually a freshwater variety or prawns, it is baked and prepared with a coating with a simple curry paste made from mustard, garlic and ginger and wrapped in a pumpkin leaf and cooked in a clay stove or on a ‘tawa.’ The name ‘Patrapoda’ means leaves that are burnt.
    An Array Of Ingredients
    Vijaykar added, "I am guessing when you steam the fish for an Indian palate, there is no pungent taste. So, you won’t normally put red chilli powder and steam the fish. So, you find another ingredient that is imparting a taste which our palate likes. Abroad you can steam the fish with just ginger garlic, green chillies and lemon. We do not accept that kind of palate for ourselves, it’s very bland for us and the taste vanishes."
    Diving into the preparation of the dish, Vijayakar said that Patra ni Machhi’s green chutney is made with grated coconut, pudina, green chillies, coriander, etc. The chutney coated fish, steamed in water with vinegar after getting wrapped in a banana leaf, is what gives the dish its unique flavour. But why banana leaf?
    Vijaykar explains every part of this versatile plant is used in cooking in some form or the other. And it’s not just the leaves in which it is wrapped that changes from region to region but the souring agent that gives a pungent kick to the dish also varies. Ingredients like vinegar, lemon, kokum, tamarind, even raw mangoes are used in the preparation of steamed fish, Vijayakar adds.
    Old Meets New
    A traditional dish like ‘Patra ni Machhi’ has not changed much over the years and is easy to cook. The dish has made its way from the home kitchen to the gourmet kitchen and Vijayakar says that it’s a dish with which “you can’t really fool around.”
    He gives the example of London-based chef Cyrus Todiwala who despite running a gourmet restaurant Café Spice Namaste and is expected to experiment with traditional dishes, leaves the 'Patra Ni Machhi' relatively untouched. So that his international diners savour the charm of its tangy but wholesome meat with a hint of spices first brought in from across the seas, centuries ago.
    The younger generation, even if they are not preparing the dish at home, are definitely enjoying every bite of it. The fish is mostly eaten during weddings, functions and is even catered during other events. A simple, humble fish preparation with minimum ingredients and a leaf, has something for every palette craving for seafood.
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