A frugal curried fish cake and a parable for Europe

     Curried Fish cakes with Robalo (sea bass)  

At certain times in history, different countries seem to need particular, sometimes bizarre, heroes to help them out. As France needed Escoffier at the turn of the 18th century, as post Roosevelt America needed Alice Waters, as Gotham city needed Batman – so 21st century Europe needs Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did.
For those of you who weren't brought up by Victorians, Mrs BDBAYD was one of the two sub-aqua spinsters who saw to it that the water-babies grew up into decent water-adults in Charles Kingsley's fairytale "The Water Babies". Her colleague, Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By, was the cosy one, treating her charges as they wished to be treated: with unlimited love and treats.Mrs BDBAYD was a different kettle of fish. She was stern, bespectacled, unbending. She behaved toward the babies as they behaved towards others, making sure their actions came back to bite them, until they gradually learnt the golden rule of civilisation: if you don't like it yourself, then best not do it to someone else.So why the sudden need for Mrs BDBAYD? Well, as Europe teeters on the brink of financial crisis, it's occurred to me that in lots of ways the last forty years of my life have seen  the water baby code inverted. We all now feel quite free to do as we would not dream of being done by. Which is not to say we're not nice, just that we've forgotten how to look after ourselves.Mothers no longer make sure their offsprings cook as their matriarch would have done .The Italian mamma has been replaced by the young working ragazza.In Portugal the moça switches on her "BIMBY." What has happened to real cooking? And why do families on the breadline shell out precious pennies for over priced ready meals, when for the same price they could make  fresh ingredients stretch to at least 3 meals? - and then governments wonder why they have to deal with obesity.
On the surface, 'The Water Babies' appears to be a traditional fairy tale complete with fairies, sea-beasts and talking animals. However, this is a fairytale adapted to Victorian life. The villains are the neglectful masters, violent schoolteachers and ignorant parents, who create a darkening world of terror from which the hero Tom must escape by turning into a water baby. However, upon entering a new world of underwater mystery, Tom must re-visit aspects of the human world in new magical forms, in order to correct his own weaknesses and become truly 'clean'. Kingsley's novel is a heavily symbolic and didactic text that conveys the horror of Victorian evils represented through surprising methods of fairytale fiction. However, above all else, the novel champions the child victims at the heart of the text  in order to expose the social evils of the time and offer comfort to those reading the novel, with the hope that fairies and magic could still be found beneath the soot of industrial Britain.
So, what ever happened to the humble fish cake? Not only do homemade fish cakes taste miles better than shop-bought ones, but if  you make your own you know exactly what goes in them; the cheap factory made ones can be full of rubbish, and it's easy to see why. Born out of frugality as a way of using up left over  mashed potato and fish, they deserve to be made in their own right. 
These are  simple yet delicious fish cakes made in a Goan/Portuguese style.Unlike Mrs BDBAYD they are extremely adaptable and malleable.You can mix and match and use your imagination to make variations to the recipe.I would normally use Pescada (hake fillets) but on this occasion I used left over sea bass that had been poached with lemongrass, chilli,garlic,coriander and lime leaves. I like them as burger sized patties,but you could just as easily shape the mixture into small disks. They can be deep or shallow fried, baked, grilled or barbecued.
You can also use any combo of ingredients so long as they hold together.A very traditional Goan fish cake would be made with a mixture of white fish and shelled raw prawns.My fishcakes are very much from the Do as you like school.
I might sometimes add some blended prawns and fish sauce, or some garam marsala and chickpeas.
The dusting too can be a changeable feast. Cornmeal, polenta, breadcrumbs, egg, flour or gram flour. When I’m really after a quick meal I have been known to use chilli sauce and tinned salmon or tuna. Delicious.
The frugal Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby fish cake 

180g cooked fish Pescada (hake) (on this occasion I used left over sea bass that had been grilled with lemongrass, chilli, garlic, coriander and lime leaves)
Approx 250g cooked mashed potato (about the same volume as the fish)
0.5 beaten egg
1 small red onion
1 clove garlic – crushed
Black pepper and salt
0.5 tsp cayenne pepper

Sort through and flake the fish by hand removing skin and any bones as you go. Stir in the mashed potato then add the egg and mix it all in by hand. Finely chop (or blend) the onion and add it along with the crushed garlic, cayenne, pepper and salt and mix it all in thoroughly.
Shape the mixture into slightly-bigger-than-bite-sized disks that you can pick up with chopsticks. Heat a little oil in a non stick frying pan and fry them for about 2-3 minutes a side, until they are a dark golden brown.
Serve with some salad, soba noodles, maybe some sweet chilli sauce for a healthy, tasty and fine looking meal
Green slaw
This crunchy coleslaw is full of crisp textures and fresh flavours.
Light, crisp and refreshing, this recipe for green coleslaw is quick, easy and a wonderful accompaniment to dishes like rice and beans that need some enzymes served on the side. Green Slaw is also a great alternative to regular coleslaw, as the dressing is very light, and it is made with either Napa or Savoy cabbage, both of which are curly and juicier than regular green cabbage.

  • ½ Savoy Curly kale or White cabbage, sliced very thin (about 4 cups)
  • 1 spring onion, chopped fine
  • 1 cup chopped coriander or other parsley, or a combination
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • celery/cucumber (optional) 
Combine all ingredients and add sea salt to taste.

On re-reading Kingsley's tale I wonder if my childhood fascination may well have been due more to the lovely illustrations of Jessie Willcox Smith than what can often be a pompous, long-winded and bigoted story with pages of ranting sermons; literally long lists the ‘ills’ of the world, as perceived by the Reverend Kingsley. There are also many examples of prejudice against Americans (murderous crows), Jews (dishonest merchants who grow rich on the sale of false icons), Blacks (fat old greasy negros), and Catholics (Popes are listed as one of the great bogies, alongside Measles!) - all of which may explain why the story is no longer very popular!


  1. Love this post - the way you have combined Victorian moralistic literature, lost knowledge and frugality with bloody good food!

    I have to confess I wasn't much fand of the Water Babies, although I loved the illustrations. "But it's all about babies," my friends cooed. Doubly horrible I thought to myself! But I became obsessed with any tale illustrated by Arthur Rackham or Kay Nielsen. Words didn't matter, those glorious pictures did. Someone made the mistake of giving me a boxed set of Puffin fairy tales for my 8th birthday. I read the first story of the first book - Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, who was anything but . . . and spent the rest of the day in floods of tears. Oh happy days!

    1. I tend to agree.My original edition has twenty four mesmerising and beautiful colour illustrations by Ethel F everett.The illlustrations were far more important to me than the words.I used to love all those illustrators and later Aubrey Beardsley and the dark illustrations of Harry Clarke.

  2. Oooh I didn't know who Ethel F Everett was until I googled her but I recognised the pics. Lovely. Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations are exquisite and I always loved Harry Clarke's Hans Christian Andersen pictures. Oh how I love illustrators! So nothing to do with food but right back at you . . . Anne Anderson, Walter Crane and Virginia Sterritt. It's interesting how so many of them were skilled in other media as well such as stained glass - this is definitely a subject I need to know more about. Not because I have any talent at art (complete duffer) but because it is so damned interesting and beautiful!


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