Random access (fish) memory
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My earliest memories are flickering images.
The old, stone house on 99 Broadway Road. A garden lush with flowers and plants. Ceramic insulators used as flower pots. The tricycle. The downhill path to the garage. Twenty hens and a rabbit. My father in uniform with a ceremonial sword. My brother standing behind half a powder tin mounted on a stick. Hurling the other half of tin at him when he refused to move. Blood. Stitches on his lip. War. Blackouts. Pasting brown paper on windows, the car’s headlamps. The Fiat 1100. MYO 55.
I was 5, and these memories are much like frames of old films, images without context, accessed randomly.
Letting go of your earliest childhood memories is a necessary part of the transition to adulthood. That is why, science tells us, remembering things before age 5 or 6 is hard, and before 3, almost impossible. My steady memories really start taking shape after 5, and—unsurprisingly—many of them are related to sense, taste, food and, in particular, fish.
Since our roots are along the fecund Konkan coast, piscine memories abound. I remember fiery pomfret curries, the strong flavours of dried and roasted Bombay duck or shark, fried fish shiny red with masala, dried prawns tossed with onion and coconut.
I remember the tang in every fish dish I ate in childhood. We don’t like fish without a touch of sourness. Our preferred souring agent was always kokum, the dried rind of Garcinia indica, one of the mangosteen family. Later, we also used tamarind and, sometimes, lime. I do not believe in carrying essential spices or other Indian essentials when living abroad but the only thing I have ever carried to the corners of the world has been kokum. The sourness is hardwired into my memory.
So, it was interesting to recently get an entirely different perspective on fishy, family memories. For the 17 years that I have been married, I knew that Sindhis also liked fish. A prominent offering from the Sindhi kitchen is fish basar (basar is onion) which, to my wonder when I first ate it, contained no souring element but was quite delicious.
I began to probe the memories of my wife’s cousins, all male, all good cooks—obviously taught well by their mother. All of them fled the country many years ago, so I had put out messages on the family WhatsApp group. I soon realized their memories were not unlike mine. Some flickered, some were strong, and many coalesced around a grandmother.
I briefly knew their grandmother, Amma, a strong, strongly opinionated woman whom I met in the autumn of her life. Much like a child, her memories were also random, but then she had endured the trauma of partition. She talked about the same things every time: the big house in Karachi, the overnight flight in terror, the sudden end to everything she had known. Then she would talk about food. “Main vaishno hun (I am vegetarian),” she would say. But she once ate meat and fish. When she gave up meat, she continued with fish. When she gave up fish, she continued eating eggs, until she died.
Her grandsons, the intrepid, expat Sindhis I referred to, had dredged her memories for recipes and traditions. Although a homeland and Amma had been lost, they keep her memories alive. So, from Vancouver and Chicago, I pieced together her recipe for fish basar and cooked it using much the same sight-and-smell instinct that she did.
The strongest gatherer of family memory is the eldest grandson, Gyan. He remembers Amma summoning the “macchiwalla” (fish-seller) from her balcony. “The guy would be carrying a tokri (basket), with crushed ice and fresh catch, shouting paaplet! (pomfret),” he says. “Bargaining would start from the balcony, through the jaali (grill) for the whole neighbourhood to hear.” The fish was cleaned at the door, the bones and skin left intact. “She took great pride in her cooking,” says Gyan. “(She) always asked for a critique. And when we said it was better than mum’s or West End’s (the family hotel), she would smile the most beautiful smile...fish basar was one of her all-time favourites.”
When I made the basar and put the photo out for the boys, I got instant critiques. “The fish needs to be cubed, tomatoes cooked slightly more, fish needs to be a little more loaded with masalas, onions and chillies look perfect,” said Rishi, the youngest grandson. “Amma would be proud of you.”
Amma’s fish basar
750g pomfret slices (easier to handle if you use fillets)
2 large onions, roughly chopped
2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 green chillies, chopped
1 tsp red-chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
2-3 tsp garam masala (depending on potency)
2 tsp vegetable or olive oil
3 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
Salt to taste
In a non-stick pan, heat oil and fry the fish until almost done. Remove from pan. In the same pan, fry onions until they start to brown. Add coriander, chilli and turmeric powders and garam masala and sauté for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, ginger, green chillies and salt. Sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the fish, mix with the masala and cook for 3 minutes. Finish with fresh coriander.
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.