• Black mustard seed is a strong, masculine spice in the category of astringent aromatics. (Samira Damirova)Source: Samira Damirova

Black mustard seed is my stovetop gateway to ‘more’. Explore its astringent qualities with these machli kebabs.






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A strong, masculine spice, I slot black mustard seed into the category of astringent aromatics.

Astringent aromatics can be intimidating to use straight off the mark. What do I mean by astringent? Think onion, mustard oil, raw garlic; flavours that strip the nasal passages on scent or on consumption.

And yet the use of astringent spice can change the entire shape of a dish. When I think of black mustard seed, I think of a spice with the power to carve out a deeper palate.

Imagine your frying pan is a pit. Imagine black mustard seed is a shovel. Using this spice to dig a deeper hole in my pan means I then have more room to layer on top with its companion spices: ground cumin, chilli, curry leaf, yellow mustard seed, turmeric and (one of my favourite outsiders) sumac; Middle Eastern, yes, but no less delicious in Indian food for its foreign origins.

The seeds’ slightly bitter, hot and piquant quality match up to the natural salt and slight sweetness of the poached fish. Each fills the gaps of the other. The perfect partnership.

In the world of spice, using multiple aromatics ensures elegance and nuance. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when I broaden my palate of spice in a single dish, I find the resulting taste softer and a little more grown up – multiplicity creates gentle complexity. Which is precisely what’s required to turn out yummy machli kebabs.

We didn’t eat a lot of fish growing up; our Kashmiri heritage finds its roots more in mutton and chicken as far as proteins go. But these kebabs were occasionally on the menu. The fish to use here is one of mid-to-firm density flesh with some sweetness – think perch or red emperor or goldband snapper. A good fishmonger can guide you.

Fish is complex to spice. Though the flesh is delicate, its inherent profile of sea and salt and subtle seaweed aroma can consume spice if it is used too lightly; just as the essence of the fish will be lost if spice is used with too heavy a hand.

Black mustard seed works in this dish by nestling down into the flesh of the fish and spreading its aromatic fingers outward: the seeds’ slightly bitter, hot and piquant quality match up to the natural salt and slight sweetness of the poached fish. Each fills the gaps of the other. The perfect partnership.

With that initial marriage between spice and flesh secured, there is now a firm foundation upon which the companion aromatics can be layered. For me, this means the addition of yellow mustard seed, mustard oil, methi, finely diced raw onion and ground cumin.

This is strong, muscular spicing in an otherwise delicate dish that works for two reasons.

One, the spices are NOT heated before being mixed through the broken up, cooked fish and so their signature aromatic qualities are muted. And, two, the addition of a single raw egg to the mix provides both sweetness and viscose volume that subsumes some of that spice.

When cooking with spice, the intensity and texture and flavour profile of every tertiary ingredient added to the pan – be it oil or breadcrumb or egg or flour – needs to be taken into account.

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Sarina Kamini is The Spice Mistress - spices tell her their secrets and she shares theirs with you. Don't miss her column, The Spice Mistress, on SBS Food. Keep in touch with her on Facebook @sarinakamini and Instagram @sarina_kamini.


  • 400 g firm-fleshed white fish, skin and bones removed
  • ½ white onion, finely diced
  • 1¼ tsp Himalayan fine pink salt
  • ⅓ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp Kashmiri red chilli
  • ¼ tsp red chilli flakes
  • ¾ tsp ground cumin seed
  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp kasuri methi (fenugreek)
  • ⅓ tsp ground ginger
  • ¾ tsp garam masala
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup fine breadcrumbs
  • mustard oil, to fry
  • olive oil, to fry

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.


  1. In a small pan on a medium heat, poach the fish fillets gently in water. When the fish has cooled, break the fish into fine pieces. I prefer not to mash to retain some texture.
  2. Place the broken up fish in a bowl. Add the onion, all of the spices and the egg, mixing through until well combined and sticky enough to roll into small balls.
  3. Hand-shape the fish mix into sausage-shaped pieces, slightly smaller than a ping pong ball.
  4. Roll each kebab gently in a little of the breadcrumbs, just enough to coat. It adds a little texture and also helps the kebabs not to break apart. (Skip the breadcrumbs for a gluten-free option. It won’t upset the dish.)
  5. In a frying pan, pour enough mustard oil to shallow fry the fish kebabs. Add about 2 tbsp olive oil to thin the mustard oil and slightly tone down its astringent flavour. Heat to high.
  6. When the oil is hot, fry the kebabs in small batches, turning once. Kebabs should be a tempting dark brown. Drain on a little bit of paper towel.
  7. Serve hot with chutney and raita.