Chow: Tilapia Bhaji At Neerob
In New York, Bangladeshi food can get jumbled with other South Asian fare. At Neerob in the Bronx, chef Khokon cooks seafood dishes that set Bangladeshi food apart from its South Asian neighbors. CHOW.com Contributing Editor Pervaiz Shallwani filed the following report.
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The city has a vibrant Bangladeshi population, but you’ll likely have to come to Neerob in the Bronx if you want top-notch Bangladeshi dishes like Tilapia bhaji, a spicy whole fish cooked using a two-day process.
When chef Khokon arrived in the United States more than 20 years ago, he was surprised to see fellow Bangladeshis cooking generic South Asian fare instead of the food they know. Four years ago, he opened this tiny, no-nonsense spot along this stretch of Starling Avenue that has come to be known as “Bangla Bazaar.”
There are plenty of similarities in Bangladeshi dishes to Indian and Pakistan cooking. But if Pakistan succeeds at meat and India excels at vegetables, then Bangladesh is defined by its seafood.
The Tilapia bhaji is my favorite example. Khokon starts by marinating a whole tilapia overnight in a mix mustard oil, lemon juice, salt, red chili pepper, tumeric, cumin and coriander.
The next day, he pan fries the tilapia over medium heat until the skin is crisp and brown. While the fish is cooking, he throws fried onions, fresh garlic, more chill pepper and salt into a separate pan, adds a heap of cilantro, cooks the mix until it’s caramelized and spoons the topping over the fish.
The result isn’t that different from escabeche, a popular Mediterranean fish preparation.
The tilapia is moist and flaky, with crisp skin that’s slightly fragrant. The topping is bright and spicy, rounding out the subtle tilapia with a kick of chilies rich and caramelized onions.
The food at Neerob is best shared. I found the bhaji paired well with Rui fish curry, tangy tomato bhortha and a mixed plate of pungent vegetables.
When it’s on the menu, make sure to try the Ilish. It’s the national dish of Bangladesh, though the rich, meaty fish is expensive and usually available only on Fridays, when mostly Muslim Bangladeshi’s celebrate the holy day.
Neerob is located at 2109 Starling Ave. in the Bronx. For more dining recommendations, visit CHOW.com.
Follow Pervaiz Shallwani on Twitter at @Pervaizistan.