Thinking about Maccher Jhol and recipes and openness in general

I know, it’s been a while since I posted anything at all. Been busy reading, listening to people, thinking. Lots to think about. More of that later.

Maccher jhol. A spicy fish stew common in eastern parts of India, principally in West Bengal and Orissa. [I suspect it’s common in Bangladesh as well, I just haven’t experienced eating it there].

It’s spicy, it’s pungent, and so I don’t get the chance to cook it that often. I’ve had a few days to myself at home, and I didn’t pass up the opportunity.

Some of you wanted me to share the recipe. This I am doing. But I decided I’d go one step further and talk about openness in general using the construct of a recipe to illustrate what I’m trying to say.

Recipes are nothing more than sets of ingredients with instructions on how to combine those ingredients using a set of tools in some standardised way to make something consistently edible, perhaps even pleasing, as a result. Inputs. Some planned outputs. Instructions as to how to get to the outputs from the inputs. Instructions on the use of the tools, implements and equipment required.

You get my drift?

Now let’s move on to making a recipe “open”. What would such a recipe look like?

1. Open and unfettered access to the recipe itself, in as simple a form as possible

First and foremost, make sure that the content of the recipe can be got to by anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere. Unfettered. No lets or hindrances. Today, the commonest way someone has access to something is when it’s in text and available on the internet, readable by a browser without any proprietary plug-ins, not requiring some other software to “read” the recipe. Tomorrow, text and reading may not be the answer, or at least not the only answer. Maybe people will start listening to things again, or watching, or imitating. Maybe their choice will depend on their profile, their preferences, the constraints they operate under. I recognise that this post is not open enough just by it being in English. Which means that someone else will have to translate it in order to enfranchise non-English speakers. Which in turn means that I have to avoid using idiom in the recipe proper. “Add a smidgen of paprika here” may not be suitable for machine translation; paprika will work but smidgen may prove difficult. You say tomayto and I say tomaht0. Bear that in mind.

2. Based on using common tools, techniques and equipment

I don’t like using microwave ovens. I have used them, but usually when others want me to heat something up for them. But at least I have a microwave oven, which means I don’t get left out if a recipe requires me to use one.

It’s something to think about. Sometimes I’m looking around for a recipe and I see words like “Now use a food processor to….” and my heart sinks. Or “at this stage insert a meat thermometer into…”. Not everyone has a food processor or a meat thermometer. For some people, even “Now weigh out precisely 2 ounces of…” is a problem. When you start thinking global, you have to understand what equipment, tools and techniques are truly common, are truly likely to be generally available. That’s core to an understanding of openness.

3. Presenting ingredients in a way that bits can easily be substituted

People will want to substitute bits for a variety of reasons. The commonest one is that of availability. For maccher jhol, eelish or hilsa is not that easy to get in the UK. [I know where and how to get it, but it’s always frozen and never locally sourced]. As we learn to care more deeply about local sourcing of ingredients, we have to think harder about how recipes are presented. The next commonest reason is that of preference, for religious or lifestyle reasons. Dishes involving beef or pork or shellfish or for that matter meat in general need to have a level of substitutability built in. For that matter, there may be someone who prefer to go hungry rather than eat tofu, so they too need to be accommodated. Once you’ve dealt with availability and preference, the main reason you’re left with is allergy or equivalent, an inability to cope with a particular ingredient. Some of my US friends have an aversion to coriander, or at least to what they call cilantro. I’m told there are large groups of people who will not eat garlic under any circumstances. And sometimes it’s more shades-of-grey: my family will handle only the low end of the Scoville Index when it comes to capsaicin, and they are not alone. For a recipe to be global and open and accessible, options on substitutability must be built in. Now this doesn’t have to be done in a spoonfed way, and not necessarily for every ingredient either. Common sense should be allowed to prevail. At the very least we need to be able to avoid branded lock-in ingredients; once that is done, perhaps all that is necessary is for the main two or three ingredients to have substitutes identified in the instructions.

On to the recipe for Maccher Jhol itself.

I find that a photograph of ingredients often helps me understand what’s going on. Now that may prove a problem for someone who only has access to text, or who’s listening to this post, so I have to make sure that the ingredients are clearly listed rather than just shown.

It’s also helpful to start the recipe with a clear indication of a few things, even before we come to ingredients and instructions. The number of servings. The minimum equipment needed. The total preparation time. So it is with instructions for anything. Think about the customer.

The first part of the recipe should deal with these criteria.


Fish stew; Eastern Indian style; no nuts, no wheat; you select the “heat” level

4 servings

A kadhai or wok or circular frying pan with deep sides is best, but any frying pan will do.

Total preparation and cooking time: 40 minutes.


8oz or 225gm of a firm fish, cleaned, filleted if needed and cut into half-inch slices (the original dish uses hilsa or rohu, a form of carp. You can use other carps or even salmon or trout. You don’t have to de-scale the fish).

1 large potato, sliced sideways. You can leave the skin on. [Here I am avoiding the word “scallop” in case it doesn’t translate].

1 bulb garlic, peeled and chopped finely

2 large tomatoes, chopped crudely

5 shallots, peeled and chopped into slices (use 2 medium red onions if you can’t get shallots).

1 cup peas (if you prefer, use cauliflower or gourd).

4 chillies, trimmed and cut lengthwise. (Remove seeds if you want it milder. Leave out altogether if you don’t like chillies).

1 bunch coriander, chopped fine. (Use scissors rather than a knife).

1 inch ginger, chopped fine.

2 tsp salt

2 tsp cumin powder

2 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp dried powdered ginger

Half cup mustard oil (if not available use vegetable oil)

2 tsp mustard paste (only if mustard oil is unavailable)

1 tsp turmeric

1 bay leaf (optional)

2 tbsp plain yogurt (optional)

1 cup water

1/2 cup fish stock (optional)

1 tsp sugar

2 cups rice

Cooking instructions:

Step 1: Prepare the ingredients. Clean, cut, slice, chop as needed to get to the list above. When you finish, you should have something that looks like this:


Step 2: Take half a teaspoon of the cumin, coriander and turmeric powders, mix with the mustard oil and optional yogurt, and rub the mixture into the flesh of the fish. If you’re not using mustard oil, use vegetable oil and the 2 teaspoons of mustard instead, but leave out the yogurt in that case. Set the fish aside.

Step 3: Pour the remaining oil into the kadhai or wok. Heat the oil; once the oil’s hot, gently slide the fish slices in, cooking until they begin to brown, on medium heat, turning over once. Remove the fish and set aside. In a separate pan, boil water for the rice. Once the water’s boiling, add one tsp of salt, bring to boil, add the rice.

Step 4: Add the remaining cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt. Stir. Add the potato slices. Saute on medium heat until the slices begin to brown.

Step 5: Add everything except for one handful of chopped coriander, the water, fish stock and sugar. Stir gently for a minute. Then add the water and the fish stock (if you’re using it). Reduce to a simmer.

Step 6: Add the sugar. Stir. Bring back the fish. Stir very gently. Cover and let the whole thing simmer for five minutes.


Step 7: Drain the rice. Serve the rice on to plates or bowls. Take the stew off the heat, garnish with the coriander, serve.




Happy eating.

Let me know what you thought of this post, of the recipe, of the ideas behind this post, what worked for you, what didn’t.

And thanks for reading this far.

7 thoughts on “Thinking about Maccher Jhol and recipes and openness in general”

  1. Good to see you back at blogging!

    Regarding striving for global understanding, the other way at work we were revising a product brochure, written by native UK colleagues, as some of the expressions were “too British” and we knew that some of our clients elsewhere might not be familiar with the wording. It’s definitely an important topic to consider, especially considering how companies & economies are interconnected.

  2. Sounds good. I may try cooking this, but I am intrigued given the wider context which you have set this in, that while you have been meticulous in describing and showing the ingredients, you have assumed familiarity with a non-standard measurement system. I know ‘cup’ is a unit of measurement in US cooking, and I know I could go and look it up somewhere if I really needed to, but I have no instinctive sense of where it falls in the range from espresso cup to pint mug. I understand why you may not wish to give precise weights, but for me a picture of your cup would be far more useful than pictures of the ingredients.

    Related to that, something which is valuable but rarely given in a recipe is the necessary level of precision. For some recipes, or some ingredients in some recipes, just that amount (or just that amount in proportion to another ingredient) is essential. For others, it’s all a bit by and large – roughly this much of this, however much you fancy of that.

    All of which rather reinforces your point – writing a recipe which avoids making assumptions about its users is harder than it looks. Or to put it a bit differently, openness is not an absolute characteristic, it is one which is relative to its users.

  3. @ana 34 years ago I used to write technical manuals, using a markup language, no WYSIWIG or even PC in those days. Ensuring linguistic and cultural transferability was key even then

  4. @stefan agreed. @elsua made similar commebts via twitter. My assumption on “cup” was wrong and this discussion will teach me. Perhaps what we need are “capacity” signs that are global, signage for recipes catching up with what the Munich Olympics introduced into track and field in 1972

  5. I think Stefan makes a very good point in the delineation between what I would specify as a “blueprint” recipe where correct ratios of ingredients are integral to the success of the dish and “guideline” recipes where experimentation and substitution around those measurements and ingredients can bring about success too.

    More importantly it’s all about the person using the recipes. My step-daughter treats every recipe as “blueprint” because she wants to guarantee the success proffered by the author/chef. Whereas I will happily ‘freestyle’ around some of the ingredients to give different taste sensations or reduce heat etc.

    I dread to think how someone could create a suitably global translation of Jamie Oliver’s “bosh a little bit of this in” recipe creation, but then again … would they need to?

  6. regarding the “cup” issue – actually, this unit of measurement is quite straightforward to me (Poland calling!). it’s usually ~200ml in size and I’d actually use a glass, but hey, the principle stands…
    but – I do believe IKEA (or the Swedish in general, not completely sure) have solved the issue of spoons, cups and pinches a while back with this nifty tool:

    … also – I don’t get inches. like – at all. even stating something should be “two-fingers-wide” (given how fingers really differ in their sizes) is better ;)

  7. JP, srsly thought you were busy writing a book on your iPad, or otherwise thinking about writing one. I’ve posted nearly every day on Tumblr since 2008, feels like time I did some think-think; it creates the yearning to do-do.

Let me know what you think

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