Pheesh Phrai

Pheesh Phrai (fish fry to the rest of you plebs) was left to us (along with pheesh chop, pheesh cutlet, Enid Blyton, Victoria Memorial and other cool stuff) by the British. This simple crusty brown rectangle is one of the things guaranteed to produce mild glazing to ocular orbits of bongs everywhere, not to mention uncontrolled salivation and the urge to lick ones lips.

Bread (and thus crumb) is phoren to Bengali food and bonelessness of fish practically a sin; fish fry is thus rarely made at home by the well brought up Bengali boudi.It has always been a guilty pleasure, associated with the forbidden roadside stall, the fancy cocktail party or that other great Bengali culinary event - the wedding feast; no bong is truly married unless every dhoti-clad guest has stuffed himself silly with first rate pheesh phrai.

The basic genuine fish fry a bhadralok will consider worthy of mauling in his the true-bong accent is a crumb-fried fillet of bhetki, accompanied by a blazingly zingy kasundi. Substitutes like atlantic cod or bass or snapper may result in slight upturnings of the Bengali nose, but will nevertheless be ingested forgivingly. Which brings most non-bongs (and a few bongs) to the question - what is this bhekti fish.

The Pheesh
Bhetki is more commonly known worldwide as the Asiatic seabass or barramundi, and to biologists as Lates calcarifer (try ordering that at your local grocer). It is a very popular fish in South East Asia; the Bongs love it with passions that can come close to hilsa, and even the Thai are often persuaded away from their pork obsessions by this fish. To make life confusing, there's a cod version of barramundi, not very pheesh phrai at all. Truth be told, however, any firm flaky white fish that fillets well works - opening the way for such scandalously daring options as haddock or tilapia. Fillets need to be palm-sized, boneless and about 5 mm thick - any thinner and you're just being mean. Any thicker and you lose the balance between fish and crust.

The Phrai
Fish is fried all over the world, and even bongland is happy enough to fry all kinds of fish in all kinds of ways, but a true-bong pheesh phrai is a very specific dish - marinated, crumbed and deep fried.

First, the marinade. The British wanted to fry the fish plain but your local maharaj (cook for the non-bongs) would have none of it. A suitable marinade of ginger-garlic-onion paste, diced green chillies, turmeric and a little garam masala - tossed on heat for a bit - is smeared on all sides of the fillet to spice things up (sometimes a touch of kasundi too).

Then there's the coating - traditionally the crumbs are from thin arrowroot biscuits, not bread - shops buy these el-cheapo biscuits by the sackful and crush away. This is possibly the more practical option in a land where stale bread is mouldy rather than crusty, and it does give a better crunch. The binder is egg, all beaten up and a little watered down - and the trick is to double dip. Marinated fillet - dip in egg once, roll in crumbs, dip again, roll again, then shape into a nice rectangle. Keep aside for 5-10 min (real chefs call it resting) before deep frying to a brown on the tan side of golden in hot oil. Sprinkle a pinch of rock salt on the finished product.

Serve with kasundi, or legions of Bengali ghosts will haunt every ancestor you have (guilty secret - also have tomato ketchup handy).

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