There are some things that my father swears by in Kolkata, and one of them is the Bhetki Meunire from the erstwhile Sky Room, which, at one point, was one of our favourite places to be in Park Street, Kolkata. When Sky Room closed down its doors in December 1993, his fond recollections of ordering the dish to the smiling server, who would always ask me which class I was in, remains gloriously untainted. Incidentally, he isn't the only one who was a fan of this dish. Satyajit Ray used to frequent Park Street eateries and would order Bhetki Meunire quite a lot. As recalled by his son, Sandip Ray, "my father would love ordering the Fish Meunire, and it was one of the things he loved eating." The origin of this recipe is quite decidedly French, but there are some interesting titbits that developed when the recipe reached India.
The Origins of the Meunire:
The Meunire, from its name, is quite French. However, it is both a method of cooking as well as a sauce. The method of cooking would primarily involve dredging the protein, preferably a flaky fish like Sole, in flour, and then pan frying it, post which it would be served with a simple sauce of browned butter, parsley and lemon. The term "meunire" refers to "the miller's wife" and the simplicity of the recipe belies its flavourful nature, which benefits fresh fish greatly. Dover Sole is preferred for this recipe, and this is, allegedly, the first meal Julia Child ever had in France, causing her to fall in love with French food because, "The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter... It was a morsel of perfection... It was the most exciting meal of my life", she later wrote in My Life in France.
Ideally, the recipe consisted of a couple of steps. First, the fish has to be fried, and then, it is put in a sauce consisting of butter, lemon, and parsley. "Back in Cannes, my mother uses this technique for cooking the fish, but she doesn't put lemon juice in it because we don't like lemon being added to our finished dish", recalls Cedric Jossé, who runs L'Instant Café and has the Meunire as a part of their new menu.
The Meunire's Popularity in Kolkata:
Though the Meunire was popular in the restaurants of Park Street, it really didn't become a rather large hit until it started being served by caterers at weddings and other occasions across the city during the eighties. Bengali caterers would use this recipe as a variation of the ubiquitous fish fry, that used to be a Bengali wedding staple back then. Often, it would be referred to as the "munia", with the recipe varying from batter fried fish topped with lemon slices and butter to two slices of fish sandwiching a stuffing and then batter fried, or fried fish topped with almonds, a hat tip to the almondine, which can be considered its contemporary. The Meunire also made a comeback in the city's menu when some cafes and restaurants serving old-school continental food started to pick this recipe up. "We love recreating old school nostalgia in our café, and we really wanted to have the Meunire in our menu because it screams old Calcutta continental," said Sanjoy Roy Chowdhury of Tribe Café. "Most of our patrons love the thick, flaky fish with some herbed rice, and we serve it as per the old-school recipe. It is also really tricky, because there's so few ingredients in it. So, all the ingredients need to be of top-notch quality."
How to Make Fish Meunire:
The fish is a very important part of the recipe, so it is a good idea to choose a firm, flaky fish like Bhetki (Barramundi), which, when cooked, remains buttery. Trout and Sole are also really great for this recipe. It is also advised to use good quality butter and also not flour the fish too heavily because that takes away from the flavour. It is also a good idea to use freshly squeezed lemon juice, freshly cracked black pepper, and fresh parsley, because they do make a difference.
For the Fish:
- 4 thick fillets of Bhetki (about 100-120 gm. each), washed and patted dry with a paper towel
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Salt to taste
- Freshly cracked pepper to taste
- Half cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
For the Sauce:
- 4 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Half tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- A pinch of salt
- Lemon wedges and herbed rice to serve with
Apply lemon juice on the fish fillets very sparingly, then sprinkle salt and pepper. Let the fish sit for 5 minutes. Spread the flour on a plate. Dredge the fish with this flour and set aside. Heat butter and oil together over medium heat, and wait till the butter stops foaming. At this point, add the fish fillets, two at a time, and fry till its golden on each side, basting often with the butter-oil in the pan. Once the fish fillets are golden on all sides, remove and let rest on a tray lined with a wire rack.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a pan, add the butter and let it melt over low heat. Once it melts completely, remove from heat, stir in the rest of the ingredients and whisk well for 20-25 seconds. Pour over the fish and serve with herbed rice and lemon wedges.