Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

HERRING BHURTA

Cross-cultural creation or adaptation of some genuine Indian recipe to the fish available to returning ex-pats? A dish from Harvey Day.

HERRING BHURTA

My parents had a copy of Curries of India by Harvey Day, assisted by Sarojini Mudnani (1955). In 1979 I was given a copy of Harvey Day’s Complete Book of Curries (1966) in which the earlier publication appears as The First Book of Curries. I go back to it regularly for the truly splendid recipe in The Second Book (originally published in 1958) for Sea-Fish Pickle on page 101, which uses 3lb of cod.

All these years I have missed the recipe on page 94 for Herring Bhurta. And I come across it in May 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, when the regular difficulties of getting hold of a fresh herring are compounded.

Day went out of fashion. His five curry books carry their colonial context with them. A new generation wanted recipes more authentically Indian and was rewarded with a host of beautiful cookery books. It’s hard to find much out about him, but he also wrote about yoga and alternative medicine – and he wrote an Occult Illustrated Dictionary (1975), which would endear him to any encyclopaedist.

His research into the curries of the Indian subcontinent and beyond have the feel of an authenticity of that time. He seems to have been living in India for at least a number of years and certainly did a lot of his research there. His market, at that time, will have been rooted in the returning ex-pats looking to recreate the dishes they missed, but he doesn’t make that many concessions around ingredients.

Is his herring bhurta substituting herring for some similar Indian fish? There obviously aren’t Atlantic herrings off the coast of India. The closest the Pacific herring comes would be Japan and Korea. There is a Bathyclupea hoskynii which might just about fit the bill, but Day might just have come across an oily fish-based bhurta and thought (as he did similarly with cod for his sea-fish pickle), This would be brilliant with herring.

Or he might simply have invented it. On a brief search, I can’t find another mention of it anywhere else. In the 50s and 60s, of course, herring was regularly available at British fishmongers.

Herring Bhurta
This is perhaps the tastiest of all bhurtas.

1 large herring
1 onion
2 green or 3 red chillis
1 lemon or lime
1 large potato
Salt to taste

Grill the herring and bone it. The skin adds to the flavour, but it may be removed, if you wish.

Chop the onion and chillis into tiny pieces. Boil the potato till soft, then mash and mix it with chillis and onion, salt and lemon juice. Then mash the herring with a fork and mix with the other ingredients, adding the oil that fripped out of the herring as it cooked, unless you find it too rich – although this will be absorbed and neutralized by the potato.