Fish & Okra Stew in Mustard Sauce
My mom's cooking is often my canonical version of most Indian, and especially, Odia dishes. Her goat or lamb curry, her vegetable stews, and most certainly her besara are perfect. Besara is a popular mustard-based stew in Odisha and West Bengal. It's made with freshly ground mustard seeds and most classically features fish. Odisha and West Bengal are both coastal states and the proximity to the ocean and the love of all that's good in life, fresh seafood reigns supreme. My mom makes a besara with rohu or Indian carp (which is very different and significantly better than Asian carp) - it's one of my favorite meals, with a bowl of steamed white rice. She also makes one with a mix of vegetables like okra, eggplant, potatoes, and drumsticks. I've taken my inspiration for this dish from both. The okras at our local grocery store were beautiful and I love the way they look whole. Finding fresh rohu in Chicago is next to impossible, so I went with tilapia, which is firm and can really take on any sort of flavoring well.
You'll see that this recipes has a handful of ingredients that are not a staple in the West. If something seems strange, take a look at my guide to Indian spices for some background, as well as ideas on how to use them in other cuisines. Getting the ingredients together may be a bit of work but if you're looking to expand your horizons into a regional specialty and love tangy and spicy together, this recipe is the one to try.
The first phase for a great besara is making the mustard paste. I've used a mix of black and yellow mustard seeds for better balance, as black mustard seeds can be spicy, turn bitter, and overpower the dish. The next phase is searing the fish with a simple turmeric and salt marinade - this helps lock in the juices and the crispy fish is a great textural balance to the soft okra in the stew. The last phase is making the stew itself, which will move quickly, so it's important to have your ingredients ready to go. I've written the recipe below to reflect the flow of the dish, so I hope that helps you stay organized!
I hope you'll give this a go and let me know what did and didn't work for you. Happy cooking!
- 2 tilapia fillets, cut into large chunks and pat dry
- 1 tbsp + 2 tsp olive oil
- 2 tsp turmeric powder, divided
- 1/2 medium white onion, clicked thinly
- 1/2 tsp panch phoron
- 8-10 curry leaves
- 1 large or 2 smaller garlic gloves, sliced thinly
- 10-12 okra, cut lengthwise and left whole
- 1 small tomato or 4-6 grape tomatoes, roighly chopped
- 1/2 lime
- 1/2 C water
- salt to taste
For the Mustard Paste
- 2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 whole dried red chili or 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 C water
Take all the ingredients required for the mustard paste soak for 4 hours to overnight. Blend to make a very fine paste. Next, prep the vegetables as noted under the ingredients list.
Sprinkle 1 tsp of turmeric powder and salt on the tilapia and coat the fish well on all sides. Set aside for 15 mins. Next, heat up a non-stick skillet on medium heat and add the 2 tsp of olive oil. Sear all the pieces of fish, about 3-4 mins on each side. If your skillet does not fit all the fish, sear it in batches - your fish pieces should not be touching each other while you sear. Once done remove the fish onto some paper towels, cover, and set aside.
In the same non-stick skillet, add the rest of the 1 tbsp of oil and heat on medium high. Add in the panch phoron and curry leaves in quick succession. Once the phoron starts sputtering, add the sliced onions and cook for 5 mins, to allow the onion to pick up some color. Next, add the sliced okra, garlic clove, and a sprinkle of salt and saute for another 8 mins. Keep the heat medium-high, as this higher heat will help reduce the okra slime. I turned my okra flesh-side down on the pan for the first 5 mins and then tossed them around for the last 3 mins, to get some color on the skin-side.
Add in the chopped tomatoes and the other 1 tsp of turmeric and toss to coat well and let cook for 2 mins. Next, add in the mustard paste and mix well for 1 min. Then add the 1/2 of water, cover with a lid, and bring to a low boil for 10 mins. Next, remove the lid, add the fish, and cook without a lid for 5 mins. As much as possible, nestle the fish in the stew to allow the pieces to lightly braise.
Turn off the heat, place the lid on, and let sit for 10 mins. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 lime and mix well. Serve with steaming rice, preferably basmati or jasmine rice.