Fishing for the good life
Growing up, my mother’s best friends were Bengali; so I have a legion of Bengali mashis (aunts). They produced a whole brace of brilliant but compliant children who routinely went on to win scholarships to study exactly what their parents advised them to, thereby depleting neither their parental resources nor sanity. By contrast, my siblings and I were showing no signs of dazzling anybody either by our intellect or by our acquiescence. Being of a scientific bent of mind, my mother narrowed down systematically on the key differentiators in upbringing that could account for the variance in both IQ and obedience between her best friends’ sprogs and us —and came to the inescapable conclusion that the key variable was fish. Yes fish, which she claimed was brain food and, obviously, also compliance food.
So no matter what else we ate growing up, we ate fish at least twice a week. Which should have been brilliant —except that my mother, who is a fabulous cook in almost every other respect, is literally the worst fish cook in the world. She only ever cooked Fish Fry (fish doused in some spices and fried till every last smidgen of taste and texture was sizzled systematically out of it) and Fish Pie (fish baked in white sauce, which tasted almost exactly like mucous). I don’t know which struck more terror in our hearts, we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to shovel either into our mouths. Even our dogs used to whimper fearfully in the face of Mummy’s fish offerings, as they backed away carefully from our outstretched hands under the table.
So for years and years, I refused to touch fish—you absolutely could not tempt me to come anywhere close to it. Which was a tragedy any which way, but made much more heartbreaking because I started my working life in Calcutta, where, by law, everyone carries a homemade tiffin to work with at least five yummies, one of which is fish. I often weep when I consider the sheer waste of it—for more than a year, as my colleagues opened and gorged on their fish dishes, I danced gingerly only around their vegetables and dal (pulses) and mishti (sweets), giving all the machher jhol (fish curry) and the fried bhetki and the shorshé maach (fish cooked in mustard) a wide berth. And then one day, just like that, I reached out and grabbed someone’s doi maach.
It was like being struck by lightning. Rohu, cooked to flaky perfection—first shallow-fried in mustard oil and then poached in a gravy made with onions and spices with beaten yoghurt—it was everything the electric bolt of first love should be like. Within a few hastily gobbled down mouthfuls, all the trauma of my mother’s piscine offerings had been washed away and I was a convert. From that day to this, my love of fish has burned strong and bright, an unshakeable beacon in the landscape of my greed, a true north in all my gluttonous journeys. Even the years I gave up all other meat, including the goat I adore, I was a pescetarian, unable to give up fish, because I felt I had so much catching up to do in the world of fish eating….
Today, I am happy to report that the deficit of my early non-fish eating years has almost been made up. Of course, there will always be a special place in my heart for the doi maach that unlocked the gates of paradise for me—the starter fish curry with few bones and an un-fishy flavour. But there are others too, things I have eaten since that I can get moist-eyed about, things I will travel miles to eat and try my best to replicate, fish dishes I feel a homesickness for, at unexpected times.
Fittingly, the first fish dish I adore is Bengali. It’s called paturi. Bhetki (or what fans of MasterChef Australia may be more familiar with as barramundi) is marinated in a coconut-mustard paste and steamed in a banana leaf parcel. The sharpness of the mustard and green chillies blends with the mellowness and nuttiness of the coconut, making the paturi a thing of beauty. There’s something about steamed fish that is almost unbearably yummy—the Parsi patrani machchi is no less worth dying for: Pomfret steamed with a green coriander and coconut chutney, the sharpness of the green chillies in the chutney is offset by a pinch of sugar and the sweetness of the pomfret flesh and balanced perfectly by lime juice. There is a Chinese version too with the parcel containing just julienned ginger, sliced scallions, sesame oil, and light and dark soy. If all I had every single day for lunch was steamed fish and rice I could ask for nothing more.
But because ultimately, there is always cosmic balance in the universe, one of my favouritest ways to eat fish today is Fish Fry. (Just as an aside there is a completely different animal called Fried Fish, which the rest of the world eats. Indian Fish Fry, I am happy to report, mutated away from this species in the Pleistocene era and therefore bears only a passing resemblance to its far off foreign cousin.) There are some versions where the fish is coated in a crumb and then fried—case in point being the bhetki fry I so foolishly and ignorantly spurned in my youth. Eaten with the sharp mustard kashundi, it is heaven on a plate. Standing proud, representing one of the other ways of frying fish is the Meen Varuthathu—the Kerala Fish Fry. Fish steaks are marinated in a sharp spice paste and then fried to a wicked brown crisp—the fish perfectly flaky underneath its bullet-proof armour. And of course there’s the Malabari/ Konkani surmai fry that I and my liver can both get misty-eyed about. The number of surmai frys I have consumed while contemplating the unfairness of being born without a trust fund over a beer with friends could repopulate an entire ocean.
Then, of course, there are the Fish Frys that are literally the entire fish fried. My friend’s cook Mary makes the world’s best pomfret like this. Slashes in the flesh and skin of the fish are stuffed with a fiery recheado masala and then the fish is fried with fat cloves of garlic—the skin is crisp, the flesh is sweet, the masala is amazing, the garlic is divine and the world is as it should be. The same treatment also yields amazing results with tinier fish—I can eat buckets full of lady fish (kane) and mackerel (bangda) stuffed with a spice paste and then fried. Even with the careful separation of bones needed to get to the flesh, the return on investment still leaves my inner banker ecstatic.
But while a good Fish Fry is perfection in itself, and needs nothing more, in my view there is something about a good fish curry that satisfies not just your senses, but also your soul. So let me count the ways in which I and my soul love fish curry. First up—the shorshé maach, the Bengali mustard fish. This is a simple yet wicked fish curry, the sharpness of the mustard oil the fish is fried in, adds a layer of pungency to the gravy made with fresh ground mustard seeds and green chillies. Mopped up with rice, the bold punchy flavours of a well-made shorshé maach can make your nose stream, your ears burn and your heart sing.
The Malabari /Goan/Konkani fish curry with red chillies and coconut with kokam for the kick is another one that holds the universe in its perfectly balanced grasp. I adore it with everything but I have started eating it with idlis of late—my homage to the neer dosas and sannas I can’t make myself. And when I feel like I need some zen-like calm, the Kerala Meen Moilee is the one I turn to—the coconut milk base perfectly creamy and fragrant with curry patta, but with the sharpness of ginger and green chillies and the pop of freshly sliced tomatoes.
There is no escaping it—I am smitten. I can wax lyrical and sing songs of praise to all the fish I adore—the karimeen porichattu that reminds me of all our fab holidays in Kerala, the ilish that I have to shamefacedly admit I love, but not more than my life itself, the Sindhi fish curry tangy with tomatoes and kasuri methi, the light and fragrant macher jhol, the tandoori trout that brings back cold and bright winter days, the Amritsari fish tikka piquant with ajwain … the only way I still cannot bear to touch fish is baked in a pie.
And of course I know that for every one fish or one way of cooking it that I know and love, there must be three more that I don’t. And here’s the hope and the dream I hug close to my greedy heart as I grow older. That every week and every year that passes, more and more fish treasures will make themselves manifest and visible to me, that all the fish that I have eaten up until now will just be a fraction of all the fish I still have to eat till the day I die. Because greed and pleasure apart, as my mother (and a lot of others) will vouch for, there is still a significant shortfall in both brilliance and compliance that I still have to make up for.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.