Bengali Fish Curry (Machher Jhal), I: Health Benefits

Dr. Shilpi Bhadra Mehta is a Doctor of Optometry, a Board Member of the Archaeological Institute of America, and leader of the Boston Paleo group, Living Paleo in Boston. I asked her to tell us about Indian cuisine, and she offered a discussion of Bengali Fish Curry. We’ll do it in two parts: first, a discussion of its health benefits; second, a recipe with pictures. — Paul

My husband, Amit, grew up in a vegetarian family and never cared much for fish. But when he went Paleo for health reasons he fell in love with this traditional Bengali recipe, so I make it almost weekly! Bengal is part of India and Bangladesh, it is the home of Bengal tigers, but it is most famous for eating and cooking fish.

When Amit and I first tried Paleo we had some minor setbacks, but our experience improved wonderfully on the Perfect Health Diet version of Paleo so we are grateful for the Jaminets’ wonderful book and website. Amit and I are organizers of the Boston Paleo Meetup Group, and hosted a great potluck and lecture by the Jaminets in October 2011. It’s a pleasure to give back by providing a Perfect Health Diet recipe for you!

Health Benefits of Fish Oil, Ginger, and Turmeric

I’m a practicing optometrist and recommend that all my patients regardless of age or health (except those on blood thinners or a week before surgery) eat about a pound of oily fish per week (about 4-5 servings) like wild salmon, sardines, and sablefish (black cod). For those resistant to eating fish, I recommend fish oils (about 1-3 grams total/day depending on age and health). Fish is great for the whole body – especially the heart, brain, and eye!

There are many health benefits to the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish. They:

  • Exercise anti-inflammatory effects throughout the body.
  • Help with brain and mental issues such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression (including prenatal and postpartum), mood, cognition, Huntington’s disease, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.
  • Help prevent and reduce age related macular degeneration (AMD/ARMD – a blinding eye disease) even in those with a strong genetic history.
  • Improve cardiovascular health in aspects such as blood pressure, circulation, triglycerides, VLDL, heart attacks, and stroke.
  • May improve immune function, rheumatoid arthritis, and insulin sensitivity.

The long-chain omega 3s EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docasahexaenoic acid) are especially important. DHA is the most common Omega 3 in the brain and the retina – the neural part of the eye that senses light, and part of the central nervous system (CNS)! About 60% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in the retina are from DHA, and 40% of the brain’s PUFA is DHA. Low levels of DHA are associated with senility, depression, and suicide risk.

DHA is also important for sperm and erythrocytes (red blood cells). In the often blinding eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), RP patients compared to normals had far lower DHA in blood and sperm. The RP patients had fewer and lower quality sperm. Since DHA is found in many tissues, the abnormalities in one tissue may share a similar biochemical cause as in other tissues.

The best and most easily absorbed source of omega-3 fatty acids is wild fish. EPA and DHA are most abundant in oily fish and in the breast milk of women who consume fish. Algae, pastured/grass-fed animals, and pastured dairy and eggs from grass-fed animals are other possible sources.

The body can convert some ALA (alpha linolenic acid) found in plants such as flax and chia into EPA and DHA, but this conversion is often poor – as low as 0.05-15% in healthy humans and worse in older people and those with some medical conditions! ALA has not shown the cardiovascular improvements of fish oil.

Although I typically recommend 1-3 grams of fish oil/per person a day for dry eye and other health issues, I cannot recommend the amounts of flaxseed that would be needed to deliver equivalent amounts of omega-3s. In flaxseed this would require 6-60 grams/per person a day which might cause diarrhea, intestinal blockage, nausea, constipation and other GI side effects.

I cannot recommend flaxseed also for women due to estrogenic effects that could negatively affect hormonal conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, or any reproductive cancers. I believe flaxseed should be avoided in women of childbearing age – especially pregnant and breastfeeding women – since in animal studies and some human epidemiological studies it has been associated with preterm birth. In rodent studies flaxseed affected menstrual cycle, lowered birth weight, and altered reproduction in offspring including infertility.

In addition to oily fish, Bengali Fish Curry provides healthy plant foods such as onion, ginger, turmeric, and lemon/lime.

Ginger may help improve mood since it affects serotonin receptors. It helps with nausea from morning sickness, chemotherapy, and seasickness. Ginger also may have some antimicrobial properties. In animal studies it prevents skin cancer, kills ovarian cancer cells, and reduces diabetic complications such as cataracts.

Turmeric has anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antitumor properties. A component known as curcumin has been shown to help cancer, osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, pancreatitis, psoriasis, and some infections.

There are so many benefits to Bengali Fish Curry, and probably more will be discovered in time – that is why I recommend it!

Selected References

Wikipedia also has a good introduction to each.


Ernst and Pittler. Efficacy of Ginger for Nausea and Vomiting: A Systemic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials. British Journal of Anaethesia. 2000. 84 (3) 367-371.

Kato et al. Inhibitory Effects of Zingiber officinale Roscoe Derived Components on Aldose Reductase Activity in Vitro and in Vivo. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2006. 54 (18), 6640-6644.


Frautschy et. al. A Potential Role of the Curry Spice Curcumin in Alzheimer’s Disease.” Current Alzheimer Research. 2005. Apr; 2(2): 131-6.

Rajasekaran, Sigrid. Therapeutic Potential of Curcumin in Gastrointestinal Diseases. World Journal Gastrointestinal Pathophysiology. 2011 February 15; 2(1): 1–14.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids/DHA/EPA/Flaxseed

Amminger et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Archives General Psychiatry. 2010 Feb;67(2):146-54.

Tou et al. “Flaxseed and Its Lignan Precursor, Secoisolariciresinol Diglycoside, Affect Pregnancy Outcome and Reproductive Development in Rats.” Journal of Nutrition. 1998 Nov;128(11):1861-8.

Ho et al. Reducing the genetic risk of age-related macular degeneration with dietary antioxidants, zinc, and ?-3 fatty acids: the Rotterdam study. Archives Ophthalmology. 2011 Jun;129(6):758-66.

Barker et al. Nutritional manipulation of primate retinas, V: effects of lutein, zeaxanthin, and n-3 fatty acids on retinal sensitivity to blue-light-induced damage. Investigative Opthalmology & Visual Science. 2011 Jun 6;52(7):3934-42. Print 2011 Jun.

Wong et al. Prevention of age-related macular degeneration. International Ophthalmology. 2011 Feb;31(1):73-82. Epub 2010 Sep 23.

Wang et al. n-3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006 Jul;84(1):5-17.

Brenna et al. alpha-Linolenic acid supplementation and conversion to n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in humans. Prostaglandins Leukotrienes Essential Fatty Acids. 2009 Feb-Mar;80(2-3):85-91.

Connor et al. Sperm Abnormalities in Retinitis Pigmentosa. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. November 1997 vol. 38 no. 122619-2628.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Curcumin has poor bioavailability though; one has to eat boatloads of turmeric to get measurable levels in blood. I find it easier to just take turmeric supplements since curries tend to stain my teeth. Turmeric actually also works well as natural dye for fabric and yarns. It’s so versatile.

    I had to stop taking fish oil after my PT/ PTT levels indicated blood clotting time to be on the high side (not surprising since I’ve always bruised and bled easily). This was after being off fish oil for 2 weeks before a minor procedure. So I would strongly advice people to have their blood coagulation levels checked prior to starting fish oil supplements, especially if they’re also green tea drinkers (green tea can act as blood thinner too).

  2. This is a bit of an odd question, but since we are talking about eyes…

    I noticed after going paleo/PHD that my eyes are more sensitive to watering when cutting onions. I used to never “cry” when cutting onions, but now even garlic can cause me to squeeze a few tears out.

    Is there a good explanation for that, or am I just probably correlating where I shouldn’t?

    • Hi Jana,

      Great observations. We don’t recommend huge quantities of fish oil – if you don’t eat salmon, a teaspoon (not tablespoon) of fish oil a day is plenty. Vitamin K is also important to maintain proper clotting activity. Re curcumin, taking turmeric with black pepper (for piperine) greatly improves absorption.

      Hi Kenny,

      I don’t necessarily have a specific explanation, but I would tend to think that is a good thing. Eyes should be able to generate tears easily, to clear irritants and toxins. Onion and garlic compounds are toxic, so you don’t want them lingering in your eye.

      So my “explanation” would be that you are healthier now, and your tears are working better.

      Best, Paul

  3. All fresh salmon in Australia is farmed so I eat canned wild salmon. Is it a better option than fresh-farmed or am I wasting my money?

    While we’re on the subject of eye health, after having posterior blepharitis for several years, I only recently discovered that it can be a symptom of low progesterone levels during peri/menopause (my situation). I was also told at my last eye check up by an optometrist that it can’t be cured, only managed. Any comments from a PHD/Paleo friendly eye doctor or from anyone with any experience of it in regard to successful treatments and management strategies? (apart from low dose doxy which I’ve already tried).

  4. GeeBee, you might want to check to see if the canned salmon are in BPA-free cans.

    Currently there are several turmeric supplements formulated with Bioperine. The one I take is from Vitacost. It’s quite inexpensive since it’s the house brand. Vitamin K2 is great for those of us who are “bleeders” as we say in the medical/ nursing field. I still bruise/ bleed more than average person but at least I won’t bleed excessively anymore from small cuts and scrapes.

  5. Hi Paul,

    I have the same question as GeeBee about canned or wild salmon – it’s so infuriating that wild salmon is not available anywhere in Australia. We were eating canned salmon but decided that the canning process must be harmful so are now eating farmed salmon twice a week although we have heard awful things about farmed salmon. I have to devise recipes to improve the taste.

    We gave up cod liver oil about five months ago after consuming quite a lot of it for six years. I am always wondering about the fish/fish oil question as my husband has a mitral valve heart condition and takes no blood thinners, just the supplements you recommend and we follow the PHD diet totally. I think quite a few people in Australia will be interested in your answer to GeeBee.

    Thanks again Paul for your great advice.

  6. Dr. Shilpi Mehta

    Hi Kenny,
    Your lacrimal gland might be functioning better and your tear film quality may improve with improved diet.

    This is a hypothesis. Omega 3’s also may improve the tear quantity and quality. High Omega 6 ratio in the diet can contribute to dry eye.

    The autoimmune disease Sjogren’s (which I know you don’t have) attacks the lacrimal gland causing severe dry eye.

    You maybe noticing better tear quantity and quality with improved diet.

  7. Dr. Shilpi Mehta

    Dear Francesca, Jana, and Geebee,
    Wild salmon is ideal. I’m not sure which is worse BPA – or farmed salmon – I guess it depends on how much you consume per week. Vital Choice, Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Eco Fish, and other make BPA-free canned fish.

    Good luck finding more options!

  8. Hi Shilpi,

    We made Bengali Fish Curry tonight, it’s great!

    Our only substitutions were beef bone broth for water, and caraway seeds for the Nigella (by mistake).

    We used salmon for the fish.

    Best, Paul

  9. Thanks Dr. Shilpi. I have both black mustard seeds (I use them a lot in curries) and black sesame seeds in my kitchen cabinet so I’ll try and use either one when I try the recipe.

  10. It’s interesting, but I have a similar problem to Kenny. I’ve always been sensitive to cut onions, but now I just can’t take it:)) If I cut onions my eyes tear up and then they hurt for a long time after that. It feels as if I’ve been crying for hours…

  11. What can a person do if they can’t eat fish?

    I’ve tried vegetarian DHA tabs but there is so little in the pills compared to the amount contained in fish (1gm/100gms by weight).

  12. Dr. Shilpi Mehta

    Hi Paul,
    I used broth as well instead of water, following your suggestion – I’m putting broth in every recipe instead of water! It’s delicious!

  13. Back on the GHD | CrossFit NYC - pingback on January 24, 2012 at 7:01 pm
  14. Wondering about this: another potential “miracle supplement” that gets an enormous amount of processing first, and gets separated from its roots. Any virtue here? Jennifer Sygro: Introducing omega 7s, the new fatty acid on the block

  15. Thank you. It is very informative.

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