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The winds of change

The old order is being shaken up worldwide, so why should old home recipes be resistant to makeovers? Here’s what happened to Ajji’s fish curry


Ajji’s fish curry (Version 3). Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Ajji’s fish curry (Version 3). Photo: Samar Halarnkar

Change. Everyone wants it, I am told, which is why the world appears to be in such ferment. Everyone wants the status quo to end, the old order to be replaced by the new. Everyone is newly impatient across the world, and so we elect leaders who promise overnight transformation—guess who they are, if you can—by taking away our money in one fell swoop, by shooting or throwing out of helicopters drug dealers (or anyone classified as such) instead of bringing them to trial, throwing in jail anyone who disagrees with them and lying to convince us that they alone can make a nation great again (Did you guess? Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump).

Who am I—living my quiet, small life under the rain trees in Bengaluru—to disagree with such visionaries?

I, too, am embracing change.

We will not, I told my six-year-old, read the same books every night. Out went Anitha Balachandran’s tale of Diya and Tara in Ninamasi’s house of living walls and whispering bookcases and in came Captain Underpants and his adventures with talking toilets.

We will not, I told my wife, go to Goa or the hills for the summer. We will try to find a wooden home on an island on the far side of the world and spend our time with God’s great living things and wide, open spaces. We did find a wooden cabin—for rent on Airbnb, off the coast of Georgia, accessible only by boat, with deer and, um, feral pigs frolicking in the undergrowth and porpoise sightings from the private dock.

We will not, I told myself, cook comfort food every day. So, after years of seeking comfort in version 2, or my interpretation, of Ajji’s (my grandmother’s) fish curry—which I have often referred to in these columns over six years—I decided to read carefully what I wrote in my first blog post in the winter of 2011: “When I lived in the US...what I did not like was the gastronomic sameness from sea to shining sea.... A big Mac or fajita in grey Gary (a depressed, depressing town of rusting factories), Indiana, was no different from one in posh, sunny Key Largo, Florida. That’s more than the distance from Guwahati to Wayanad. Who could imagine the same food in Assam and Kerala?”

Despite this six-year-old paean to diverse experiences, I have enforced on myself a gastronomic sameness of sorts. I do experiment, but I also do comfort food more often than ever. Is this because I am in my 52nd year? Why do I no longer spend time flipping through the shelves of food books I have accumulated over the years? Why do I start the day with dosa and end it with baked fish?

It was my mother, who lives a far more regimented life than I do, who got me thinking about change. One day, as is her wont, she sent across a little tiffin. It looked like fish curry, a lot like Ajji’s curry actually, but when I took the first taste, it was obvious she had blown some winds of change through it and refreshed our old family recipe. The usual coconut flavour had receded into the background, the freshness of the spice burst through the curry and the mackerel seemed flakier than ever.

What did you do? I asked my mother. She was bored with the same thing, made the same way. So, in the footsteps of such worthies as Modi, Duterte, Erdoğan and Trump, my mother had shaken up the status quo. She had roasted fresh spices—what, isn’t that for heavy meats? She had added ginger and garlic to the coconut paste in the food processor—what, we don’t do that; ginger, really? She had, hastily, added onion to the coconut as well, so that I did not complain about too much coconut.

There you have it. Simple changes, but they worked.

Yet, there is much to be said for old comforts. So, one night, the daughter and I retreated to the familiarity of Mr Jeejeebhoy and his birds. We smiled and giggled as we read, for the umpteenth time, how Tara’s hair grew into soft, crimson branches and Diya learnt to fly. Dusk faded into night, and we sank slowly into our old, comfortable reality.

Ajji’s fish curry (Version 3)

Serves 3

Ingredients

Half kg surmai (kingfish), slices

6-7 pieces kokum, soaked in 2 tbsp warm water

1 tsp vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

100g coconut pieces

Roast the following on a griddle

8 garlic cloves

5 peppercorns

Half inch piece ginger

2 petals star anise

2 tsp red chilli powder

Half tsp turmeric powder

3 tsp coriander powder

Method

When the spice mix starts to smoke on the griddle, move to a food processor with the onion and the coconut. Add water and grind to a paste. Warm oil in a non-stick wok, add the paste and fry lightly for 2 minutes. Add water and bring the curry to a gentle boil. Add kokum with water and stir for a minute. Slide in the fish pieces, cover and cook until done, perhaps 5-10 minutes. Serve hot with white rice.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.

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