Nigella Lawson's Fish Finger Bhorta
I am so grateful to the political journalist Ash Sarkar for this new love in my life. I have to say I had never heard of it before I saw a tweet of hers in April 2019, which read:
Nostalgia in a dish: cooked fish fingers, mashed with onion, fresh ginger, and green chilli that’s all fried in mustard oil, stirred through with a bit of English mustard and finished with lemon and coriander. Bird’s Eye bhorta is to me what a tea-dipped madeleine was to Proust.
Up until now, I had thought the fish finger found its greatest expression in a fish finger sandwich, which for all my expounding on the subject on p.43 of Cook, Eat, Repeat, I don’t consider the stuff of recipes; the fish finger bhorta is a different matter entirely. I have to say I became obsessed after reading Sarkar’s tweet and, using her brief description, had a play in my own kitchen, until coming up with this version here. I did feel a little anxious about it at first, I’ll admit. I worried about my changes, was concerned that I might be traducing what was an obviously emotionally resonant dish, and so tweeted Sarkar about it, explaining what I’d done. Her answer couldn’t have been more soothing: ‘As long as you’re eating it at 3am straight out of the Tupperware,’ she wrote, ‘it’s authentic.’ And this is exactly what you’ll want to do. If there is anything better waiting for you all boxed up in the fridge after you come back late from somewhere, the morning’s hangover already in position and waiting to drop, I’ve yet to find it. Still, my drinking days and late nights are mostly behind me, I’m glad to say, and I’m happy to make this at any time when the need for vibrant sustenance and delicious comfort hits.
This dish says something so fundamental about what cooking is, about how we adapt to ingredients that are new to us, and make them part of our lives. Authenticity is a much overused, indeed much misused, word in cooking; in life generally, come to think of it. Honest borrowing is the natural province of the cook, and recipes are living, evolving entities.
The pink-pickled onions which I bring to the party, are not mandatory, but an addition I would be unwilling to do without. However, for all that they’re quick, they’re not instant. You can simply steep the onions in red wine vinegar (not the expensive kind) a couple of hours ahead, but longer is better. I plan to do this 6 hours ahead, or the day before, although I try anyway to keep a rolling stock of them in the house.
|For the pink pickled onions:|
|red wine vinegar or lime juice, to cover|
|For the bhorta:|
|2||regular onions (approx. 300g)|
|2||fat cloves of garlic|
|1 x 15ml tbsp||finely grated fresh ginger (approx. 50g chunk)|
|3 x 15ml tbsp||cold-pressed rapeseed or vegetable oil|
|2 x 15ml tbsp||English mustard (from a jar)|
|2 tsp||sea salt flakes (or 1 tsp fine sea salt)|
|3 x 15ml tbsp||roughly chopped coriander, plus more to serve|
1. Make your pink-pickled onions as far in advance as you can: at least 2 hours, and up to 24. Cut your red onion half – or use a whole onion if you prefer, as you will easily find yourself adding them to much else – into fine half-moons. Put these into a jar with a lid, or simply into a bowl that you can cover. Pour over red wine vinegar (or lime juice), pressing down on the onions until they are all just immersed. Put the lid on the jar or cover your bowl, and leave the onions to steep.
2. When you’re ready to make and eat the bhorta, heat the oven to 220°C/200°C Fan. While you’re waiting, peel and slice your 2 regular onions into fine half-moons, deseed the chillies (or not if you prefer) and slice them finely, and peel the garlic. If the skin is tough, peel the ginger (using the tip of a teaspoon) then grate it finely to give 1 tablespoonful.
3. When the oven’s hot, and your ingredients are assembled and ready, put the fish fingers on a baking sheet and cook for approx. 20–25 minutes, which may be slightly longer than the packet directs, but will ensure the breadcrumb coating is really crisp.
4. Meanwhile, warm the oil in a large frying pan (I use a wokshaped stir-fry pan), and cook the onions over medium-low for 20 minutes, stirring regularly, by which time they will be pale gold and soft.
5. Add the sliced chillies, stirring all the while, for 3 minutes, then stir in the grated ginger, mince or grate in the garlic, and cook, still stirring, for another 2 minutes. Spoon in the mustard and salt, stirring to combine, then add the spinach leaves and let them wilt in the pan for 2–3 minutes, stirring regularly, then squeeze in the juice of the lime.
6. Take the pan off the heat while you get the fish fingers. Break them up a bit with a spatula then add them to the wok or frying pan. Toss everything together, breaking them up further, and sprinkle over the coriander.
7. Serve topped with the pink-pickled onions, adding extra chopped coriander if wished.