“Must I pay tax to a Labbai who sells dried fish?” That dismissive response, probably made 303 years ago, irritated me.
The quote is from American professor Alf Hiltebeitel’s book Rethinking India’s Oral And Classical Epics: Draupadi Among Rajputs, Dalits And Muslims. It is attributed to Raja Desing—a translocated Rajput who was master of Gingee Fort, deep in Tamil Nadu—as he dismissed a 12-year pending demand for tax from the nawab of Arcot, a vassal of the fading Mughal empire and a devotee of goddess Meenakshi.
The Labbai that Desing referred to are a Tamil-speaking Muslim group. The nawab, presumably, was a Labbai. But I was particularly interested in Desing’s derogatory reference to sellers of dried fish.
Desing was a Bundela, one of many Mughal-allied Rajput groups given jagirs—feudal land grants—in the south when a jagir shortage emerged in the north. Desing’s story is now legend: His 500 versus the nawab’s 30,000, with Tamil ballads claiming the Bundela rode a flying horse. But the D-man clearly knew little about the power of those who dealt with dried fish.
Eventually, in 1714, Desing impaled himself on his sword in battle with the nawab, while the dried-fish sellers and eaters he derided flourished. Later that century, when the Maratha Confederacy made the Mughal emperor its vassal, one of the foods that fuelled the Maratha armies—whose empire once encompassed Gingee—was dried fish. Even after the Marathas had been subjugated by the British, Pune’s Shaniwar Wada palace, seat of the Peshwas, had nearly 50 stalls selling dried fish, according to an 1885 gazetteer issued by the Bombay Presidency.
To this day in Tamil Nadu, Labbai, Hindus and Christians sell dried fish, which for centuries has been air-dried, and is popular across the south, east and west coasts and the North-East. In short, everywhere but the north (save Kashmir), which explains Desing’s ignorant contempt, reflected in the attitudes of most northie friends who appeared stunned whenever they detect its long-lingering aroma in my kitchen.
My link to dried fish is intensely familial. I have eaten dried fish ever since I can remember: dried mackerel, prawn, kingfish, shark and—most intense and memorable—Bombay duck, its strong, salty flavour pervading modern Mumbai. For years it has been our comfort food, whipped out to enliven a vegetarian day. Many memorable meals consisted of bhakris (hand-flattened and flame-roasted bread made from millets or grain) or chapatis with dried fish, roasted or tossed with simple spices—red chilli and turmeric—kokum, garlic and onion. Last month, my aunt, once my prime supplier of dried prawns, jousted with my mother and me over which was better, sode or sukat, the former being larger dried prawns, the latter tiny shrimp.
These are important issues. Dried fish can also be a test of love. I knew I would be true to my vegetarian wife when she once cooked dried fish, standing at arm’s length from the pan, holding her nose and trying not to gag or be overwhelmed by the smoky, smelly intensity of it all.
Only those unfamiliar with dried fish claim that they smell. To me, the aroma is a reminder of life itself: summer, salt and the sea; big skies, blue water and fecund nature.
The big problem with dried fish in these days of eating healthy is their high salt content. So, today I have a recipe (below)—from my mother—where dried fish is not the centre of the entrée but an ingredient.
You should also be careful while buying dried fish because it is dried in not-very-clean places, enduring raids by cats, dogs, flies and worse (dare I say it, rats). Some dried fish are toxic, laden with chemical preservatives, such as banned DDT and formalin, the stuff used to preserve bodies.
I get my supplies from the local ham shop, which sources dried fish from people they trust—and I trust them.
Dried fish has also moved online (Giskaa.com), as Lounge’s editor pointed out to me, and you can get varietals from Nagaland to Karnataka delivered to your door. The North-East, particularly little Manipur, offers everything from smoked swamp eels to fermented varieties. Desing Raja would not have approved.
Spiced Flattened Rice Tossed With Dried Shrimp
K kg flattened rice (poha), wash, soak in water for 3 minutes and drain
4 onions, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 potato, boiled, peeled and chopped
6 green chillies, chopped
K tsp turmeric powder
15 curry leaves
2 tsp mustard seeds
2-3 tsp ginger, chopped
2 cups dried prawns, wash, soak in water for 15 minutes, drain. Add N tsp turmeric powder and K tsp red-chilli powder and keep aside
Juice of 3 limes
1 cup coriander, chopped
4 tsp vegetable or olive oil
Salt to taste (remember, the dried fish is salted)
Heat oil in a non-stick wok. Splutter the mustard seeds, then add onions and sauté for 3 minutes on medium heat. Add green chillies, ginger, curry leaves and sauté till the onions are pink. Add tomatoes and potatoes and stir for a minute. Add the dried prawn and sauté for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat. Add flattened rice, mix well and sauté for 5 minutes. Add turmeric powder, lime juice, coriander and salt. Check for seasoning. Toss for 5 minutes; cover and cook for a further 5 minutes. Serve hot.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets as@samar11