Life of Pi: Bengali Fish Curry Recipe

Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain
(PG, 127 min.)
Academy Award:
Best Director Ang Lee

“When you've suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”  Yann Martel, Life of Pi

A boy and beast who share a single lifeboat form an uneasy alliance to survive 227 days lost at sea.  In this visual feast the sea itself becomes our world, filled with beauty and terror as it dances with life and courts death in seamless waves that wash across the screen.  

But this epic adventure takes its time getting us into the drink.  We first meet the young Pi in India’s French enclave Pondicherry, where his father owns a zoo. 

The camera almost caresses the animals as it hovers over them, their existence and young Pi’s a sort of Eden of innocence and beauty.

The film is grounded in a whimsical charm and humor, which we first learn about as Pi describes his name.  Originally named after an uncle who “collected” memories of swimming pools on his travels like others did souvenirs, our lead character is actually named Piscine Molitor, after the exquisite pool in France so beloved by his uncle.  Unfortunately for the young Piscine, that French word for “pool,” piscine, sounds almost exactly like an English word describing another kind of watery fluid, one not nearly so clean and pure as the Paris variety, making him the butt of jokes at school.  So “Piscine” reinvents himself as “Pi,” the mathematical symbol that depicts the ratio of a circle circumference to its diameter.

This reinvention is an early testament to Pi’s creativity and will, both of which are keys to his survival at sea later on.  It is also a glimpse at the complex naming traditions of India, one rendered charmingly in 2007’s The Namesake, also featuring Irrfan Khan and Tabu. Still another humorous twist with names occurs when a tiger at the zoo becomes listed after the hunter who captured it.  Thus, the wild Bengal tiger that shares Pi’s lifeboat has the very civilized English name Richard Parker.

A boy who names himself after a mathematical symbol is just as eccentric in his religious beliefs as well, his holy trinity consisting of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.  After all, as the older Pi says, “Faith is a house with many rooms.” 

Yann Martel, author of the Booker Prize winning 2002 novel the film is based upon, elaborates:

Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat wearing Muslims.

No wonder the lauded director Ang Lee seized upon the protagonist Pi, even though he originally thought the novel unfilmable.  Lee has embraced as least as many genres as Pi has religions, including but not limited to Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) (later made into 2001’s Tortilla Soup), Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and the Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain (2005).

The grown Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells an aspiring novelist that his tale will “make you believe in God,” but on these merits the film falls short, given that the small act of saving a single boy and a Bengal tiger out of a whole ship full of humans and animals does not speak particularly well of the loving Hindi/Christian/Muslim God Pi has envisioned.

But as a tale of magical realism it excels. There is an uneasy truce between man and beast at best, as Pi (Suraj Sharma) creates a makeshift dinghy to separate him from the tiger that holds dominion over the lifeboat proper.  Using wily skill and a pointed stick, Pi becomes a ringmaster of sorts when he has to gather supplies from the boat.  The two share agonies and ecstasies, near starvation eased by a cascade of flying fish that literally leap aboard, a terrific storm of such deadly beauty that Pi  begs “Richard Parker” to join him on deck, a near death bond as Pi cradles the beast’s head on his lap, and a final reprieve from an island of meerkats that rivals any Odysseus ventured upon.

However, the bookended events with an older Pi recounting the tale take away from any suspense we might have about his survival at sea, and an alternate ending seems rushed and abrupt, although it lingers in our minds as an uncomfortable reality.

But this epic tale will capture you just as it has the Oscar Board of Governors who have just nominated it in 11 categories. It is life and death, loneliness and longing, brutality and tenderness distilled into a magical elixir.

–Kathy Borich


Film-Loving Foodie

Since it is the bounty from the sea that sustains Pi and the fierce tiger who shares his lifeboat, how apt to have a fish dish for our recipe.  Ours is a Bengal tiger, so aren’t we lucky that this fish curry hails from the Bengal region of India?

The fresh ginger root, cumin, and cilantro leaves promise it will be delicious.  Enjoy!

"A very spicy dish. This recipe is inspired by my mother's Bengali fish recipe she used to make in India."

— Mantu

Bengali Fish Curry

Recipe makes 4 servings

For the marinade:

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons canola oil

4 white fish fillets

1 onion, coarsely chopped

4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 (1 inch) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped

5 cashew halves

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon white sugar

1/2 cup chopped tomato

1/4 cup vegetable broth

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro


Mix the mustard, pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons of canola oil in a shallow bowl. Add the fish fillets, turning to coat. Marinate the fish in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Combine the onion, garlic, ginger, and cashews in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture forms a paste.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the prepared paste; cook and stir for a minute or two. Add the cayenne pepper, turmeric, cumin, coriander, 1 teaspoon salt, and sugar. Cook and stir for an additional five minutes. Stir in the chopped tomato and vegetable broth.

Arrange the fish fillets in a baking dish, discarding any extra marinade. Top the fish with the sauce, cover the baking dish, and bake in the preheated oven until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 30 minutes. Garnish with chopped cilantro.