By Sanchita Chakraborty, as told to Helen Racanelli

Sanchita Chakraborty is a community builder, a social activist, a dance-troupe leader and, emphatically, not a food snob. Born in Bangladesh, she grew up in India, and in 2001, moved to St. John’s, N.L., to attend Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is currently the diversity coordinator and intercultural training officer with the Association for New Canadians, based in St. John’s. In 2004, Chakraborty founded a cross-cultural dance community, named Bollywood Jig, to celebrate the richness of Canada’s cultural experience. The troupe currently has members of all ages from 16 different countries.

Muri ghonto is a Bengali speciality. Muri means “fish head” and ghonto is the medley of vegetables. This is my mom’s recipe—of course, I can’t make it as good as she does. Usually, we eat it on special occasions, like for a pre-wedding celebration, but it can be a daily food. My mom made it for the guests when my sister got married, and especially when I go home to India, she’ll make it for me.

It’s a very historical, traditional food. I’ve seen my grandmother make it, and I’ve heard about her grandmother making it. My dad’s mom, my mom’s mom—it kind of continues, this legacy. It’s made in west Bengal and the eastern part of India, where there are some twists and changes to it, but the main ingredients are the fish head, rice and the dal (lentils).

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You choose fish heads that have some meat in them, then wash them and take out the black stuff in the head. People are not used to eating fish heads in Canada, though they have some fish stews in Newfoundland that are just as hardy: “fish and brewis,” a traditional Newfoundland fish stew with chives, savory and lots of potatoes, is sometimes said to use fish heads, but most of my friends’ families do not use them. However, cooking is so universal; my mom uses the lines in her fingers and the palms of her hands to measure, as do my friends’ grandmothers here in Newfoundland.

Growing up, food would be served by Mom in the kitchen on a big platter. Rice would go in the middle, and there would be other foods, like vegetables, on the side served in small steel bowls, and those small bowls would surround the side of the platter in a circle. You ate with your hands. Why? South Asians do this because touch is part of your senses, so when the food tastes good and smells good, it also has to “touch” good. That is one difference for me, when I’m home by myself, I prefer using my hands to eat. But when I’m socializing, I use a fork and spoon. With my hand, I can feel the bones in the muri ghonto, for instance, before it goes in my mouth. Over here, when I have friends over, I’ll let them know there are bones in the stew and warn them to be very careful before they serve themselves.

Most of my local friends have a strong taste for hot-and-spicy food, and they love it. They can eat more spice than I can! I have a few friends who can’t tolerate muri ghonto because of the smell and, especially, the fish heads. By comparison, if my Bengali friends smell it cooking, they’d say, “Hey, can you share that?” A joke we have is that they come over by following the trail of the smell.

I have Bengali friends who are here, I have a close friend from Calcutta and another from Bangladesh. We have started our own tradition, where every other Sunday, the three of us will make Bengali dishes and eat together. It’s like those shows where home cooks eat together, minus the complaining and the money. It’s food, what is there to judge? If it smells good, “touches” good, feels good—go for it. I don’t understand food criticism. This is one area where my social activism comes in: In my work, I see people coming from countries where food is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Just be quiet and eat it! [Laughs]

Muri Ghonto (Fish Stew), courtesy of Sanchita Chakraborty

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Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients
1 large fish head, cleaned (cod is good)
1 tbsp (15 mL) turmeric, divided
pinch each salt, pepper, fresh cumin powder, panch phoron (found in ethnic specialty food stores or South Asian markets)
3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil (approx)
2 bay leaves
1 small cinnamon stick (size of pinkie finger)
2 red sun-dried chilies
1 to 1½ large onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
pinch chili powder (optional)
1½ cups (375 mL) freshly boiled water
½ cup (125 mL) dried lentils, soaked and cooked as per package instructions
half tomato, chopped
squeeze lemon juice
fresh coriander leaves
cooked white or brown basmati rice

Directions
1. Marinate fish head with ½ tbsp (7 mL) turmeric and the salt and pepper for 10 minutes.
2. In pan over medium heat, heat 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil. Fry fish head on both sides until browned, about 10 minutes total. With spoon, break apart fish head. Set aside.
3. In separate pan over medium heat, heat enough oil to cover bottom of pan. Add 2 pinches panch phoron, cumin, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and chilies; fry for about 5 minutes. Add onions, stirring, until onions are slightly brown. Add garlic; fry for 5 minutes. Add chili powder, if using, and remaining turmeric; fry, stirring, for 5 minutes or until mixture is dry consistency. Add ½ cup (125 mL) water and fish head; simmer, stirring. Add lentils and remaining water; simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Add tomatoes and generous squeeze of lemon; simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Garnish with coriander and serve with basmati rice.

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