When you grow up in a house where food is flavoured and influenced by several different kinds of cuisine, you end up with an extensive palate that begs for adventure. With Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, American, African and Burmese influences in my family, it is quite common to see a dish that you might ‘think’ is authentic Bengali, when in reality, it most likely has its roots in other cuisine.
This dish is one such example; I grew up hearing this fish curry be called ‘Maacher Jhaal’ by my Dida and Maa….and often wondered why the regular Bong maacher jhaal was so different. It is only as I grew up and learnt about Burmese cuisine deeply that I realized that this is in fact the simple BURMESE FISH CURRY, or NGA SIPYAN.
In Burmese, Nga means fish, and Sipyan means ‘oil returns’. The specialty of this curry is to let the fish simmer in the gravy on a low heat for a good while, until all the liquid has evaporated, leaving behind a layer of oil on top.
Burmese cuisine is known for its simple, clean flavours. They use a lot of tamarind, fermented fish paste called ‘Ngapi’, fermented tea leaves ‘lahpet’, dried shrimp, ginger, soy, fish sauce and most importantly, minced or hand-pounded onion, garlic and soaked dried red chilies. It is these condiments that lend Burmese cuisine its unique flavour. Peanut oil is the fat of choice, though often, these days people replace it with healthier versions; in our home, mustard oil is used most often.
If you visit Burma, or Myanmar as it is known today, you will be treated to a wide variety of street-food; from fried snacks, to salads called ‘thoke’, to soups, and of course, the traditional Burmese meal that usually comprises of rice and curry (either fish or duck/pork), with a side of stir-fried veggies and dipping sauces. This fish curry is one of Burma’s most rustic dishes, made almost in every home. And though the use of oil is high, the flavours here are unmatched, and worth dying for…trust me 😉
Burmese Tomato Fish Curry (NGA SIPYAN)
- Rui/Rohu fillets – 6 (use any fish of the carp family)
- Garlic – 8 to 10 large cloves
- Onion – 2 medium
- Tomatoes – 3, roughly chopped (you may blanch and remove skin)
- Turmeric – 1 tsp
- Coriander – stalks and leaves chopped roughly
- Fish sauce – 1 and 1/2 tbsp
- Salt – to taste
- Coarsely ground red chilies – 2 tsp (reduce if heat is too much)
- Green chilies – 2 or 3, chopped
- Peanut oil – 6 to 7 tbsp (replace with refined or mustard oil)
- Marinate the fish pieces with salt and turmeric, and keep aside for 15 mins.
- Heat a large wok with peanut oil and once it’s smokey hot, slide the fish and fry them on a medium-high flame on both sides until golden.
- Drain on a kitchen towel and keep aside.
- Chop the garlic, tomatoes and onion (or make a coarse paste with a mortar pestle), and add the garlic first into the oil.
- Give it a good stir, and when it begins to change colour, add the onion.
- Saute on medium heat for 3 to 4 mins, and then turn the heat to low. Add a cover/lid on the wok.
- Let the onions caramelize for 10 to 12 mins, on a low flame until they become soft.
- Now, remove the lid, check the onions; they shouldn’t burn, so be careful.
- Next, add the tomatoes, fish sauce and salt, and the coriander stems.
- Mix well, add the fried fish and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water. Turn down heat and simmer for 15 to 20 mins or until gravy reduces and the fishes have soaked up all the flavours.
- Sprinkle the chopped coriander leaves, a few chopped green chilies, stir, and serve with steamed rice.