Patraani Machi and Macher Paturi: Parsi and Bengali Styles of Making Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves

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The Parsi Patraani Machhi, which literally means fish cooked in a leaf, has an almost identical cooking process as the Bengali favourite known as Macher Paturi. The spices were definitely different in their typical avatars. Lily tells us the similarity and differences of the two cuisines, Parsi and Bengali, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Call it by any name. It tastes just as heavenly. I am talking about parcels of delectable fish wrapped in oil basted banana leaves. The origin of the dish is debatable.

The Parsi dish Patraani Machhi, which literally means fish cooked in a leaf, has an almost identical cooking process as the Bengali favourite known as Macher Paturi. The spices were definitely different in their typical avatars.

The Bengalis use an uncomplicated simple blend of spices to marinate and cook it. Originally, it was a mixture of mustard pasted, turmeric, salt, green chilies and mustard oil. As time passed, the Bengali palette allowed itself to be tantalised with the inclusion of coconut, coriander paste and yoghurt. Many more innovations were not tried except in the type of fish used. Originally, the typical dish was prepared with Hilsa fish. Now, Hilsa or Illish is both seasonal and costly. Bengalis, therefore, started cooking with other river fish like Bhetki and Rohu and later with sea fish like Pomfret too. 

Even though strangely the Parsi dish Patraani Machhi is uncannily akin to Macher Paturi of Bengal, yet no evidence points out to any history of a similar place of origin. The process of cooking is identical. The fish slices or whole fish are wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. The real difference is that the use Pomfret, which is a sea fish as a rule.Other than that they spice their dish with a blend of coriander and mint leaves, with grated coconut and a paste of , garlic and onion.

Since the similarity in these dishes intrigued me, I tried to read up and search more about it. To my delightful amazement, I realised that many international cuisines other than the two I knew, also used a similar technique.

South East Asian countries also steam fish in plantain leaves. It is generally halibut or cod. Olive oil is smeared on the fish with crushed garlic, salt and pepper. Sticky rice is also steamed in leaves in this part of the world.

Mexicans are the other people who use leaves to steam their Tamales made from corn starch or even a suckling pig.

I wonder if the quaint Parsi restaurant called Jimmy Boy still exists near Horniman Circle in South Bombay. It is believed to have a Patraani Machhi to die for.

Any place near the sea and with banana trees around would be great to set up a Pomfret to steam. Having said that it is important to say that Parsis, who are the Zoroastrians of India, take their food very seriously. A wedding celebration means good finger-licking, lip-smacking food. Friends wait to be invited to a typical Parsi feast. Though the Parsis descend from Persia, they are distinct from Iranians. They made and Sindh their homes sometime in the 10th century.

Patraani Machhi is flavorful but light. Doused in the green chutney it releases flavours slowly as the banana leaf packet is opened up. Aromatic and delicious, smothered in fresh flavours it is a healthy option to fried fish.

For food history buffs, this dish is one of the hallmarks of Parsi cuisine, as it is influenced by the fine relationship of Gujarati and Persian cooking.

To make a quick version, you may follow the instructions given below:

  • Marinate a kg of fish in lime juice and salt for 30 minutes
  • Coat the pieces on both sides with chutney made out of 1 grated coconut,6 green chilies, 50 gm coriander leaves with stems, 1 tbsp. mint leaves, 1 tsp ground cumin seeds, 1 tsp sugar, salt to taste.
  • the fish pieces in banana leaves and secure with string
  • Steam or if not possible bake for 10 to 15 mins. Serve hot.

 I am waiting for my next invitation to a Parsi wedding, though I never under estimate the power of a typical Bengali Macher Paturi.

Bye till next time.


©Lily Swarn

Photos from the Internet

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Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.
Lily Swarn

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