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Surmai, when filleted, is easy for children to eat.
Surmai, when filleted, is easy for children to eat.

Why my table does not groan

Cook yourself, get fish to multitask and discard Indian guest mantras

My family tends to get nervous when guests are expected for dinner, and I have suggestions to offer. I should clarify that they are not nervous that guests are expected. They are nervous that I have suggestions to offer. A suggestion, actually. I say, “Leave it to me."

My mother won’t say it, but if I suggest two dishes—one non-vegetarian, one vegetarian—she will say, “that sounds good" and quietly add another three. My father will snort and say, “we cannot serve just two dishes", and go on to suggest six more. My wife will agree that two are enough (because otherwise she might appear to be like her in-laws and appear uncool) but she will get the cook to make two more—and get another from my parents.

This culinary munificence is an Indian thing. The table must groan with food or appear to groan. In any case, the said groaning table must, at least, look full (whether it is burdened enough to groan or not). And then the host must peer at everyone’s plate and utter one of the three Indian guest mantras:

“Your plate is empty (even if it is so full that you are forced to hold the chapati or papad in your hand)."

“You haven’t eaten at all (even if you’ve just finished your fifth helping—and four of those were personally ladled on by the host)."

“You must have something more."

I like to believe I am a genial, easy-going man, but such declarations irk me greatly.

I do dinners extraordinary justice. After subtly—and, as time passes, not so subtly—encouraging the host to serve dinner at a reasonable time (ideally 7pm, but I’ll settle for 9pm), I am first to the table and last to leave, still serving myself when the latecomers are into dessert, which I abhor.

You can see how I cannot be anything but irked if I am still served a guest mantra.

So, at home, I tend to overcompensate. Make two entrées, make them with love, make them well, and of what use is a groaning table? I believe standout entrées tend to, well, stand out. People tend to focus on whatever little is on their plate, and they tend to remember limited options (of course, this can be a fraught approach if you get one or both wrong).

It is no coincidence that the best restaurants have limited menus. Brief selections of food are a sign of a particular confidence in what you have cooked. I also find that those who do not cook themselves and depend on others, tend to hedge their bets by creating the groaning table. And since most Indians have someone else to cook dinner for guests, you can understand why it is a tradition to load the table and do as much as is possible.

Since I cook myself, and I’m—after a quarter century of cooking—reasonably confident of my abilities (well, at least confident of my confidence), I try to do the best I possibly can, with the least effort and least number of ingredients.

On this breezy Sunday morning, I pondered this philosophy of mine as I contemplated the fish before me and the evening dinner party ahead.

Since there were children involved, the type that slept early (my five-year-old and her best friend), the plan was to start the evening at 5pm and end by 8pm. For those of you expressing incredulity at these timings, this is not an abnormal evening in my house, and although my wife expresses mock horror, insisting she is (she was, actually) a late partygoer, she is secretly happy (most of the time) at my fuddy-duddy ways.

The vegetarian food was sorted. I was to make a paneer à la Samar, which I make particularly well with the North African garam masala, ras el hanout, and our own red-chilli powder, flavoured with roasted, crushed aniseed. Of course, the wife had also arranged for a yellow dal and sundry shaart-eats, as Kannadigas call short eats.

The fish was a surmai, a kingfish—a particular party favourite. I did tell you that I concentrate on two entrées, and that is true, but I bend the truth, sometimes, by getting these two main dishes to multitask. Like so: A roast chicken might have jacket potatoes popped along with it; roasting vegetables may have fish grilling alongside—you get the idea.

Now, I had a particularly nice Cajun spice (um, assembled in Kerala) from the local supermarket, but it was untested on fish. I firmly believe in experimenting on guests—a thought that fills my father and wife with substantial trepidation—but, for once, I thought I should hedge my bets. So, I laid out the foot-long fillet—I never use fillets, but I thought it might be easy for the children—of fish and proceeded to lather one side with our basic, Konkan spice (a mix of red chilli powder, turmeric and lime juice) and the other with Cajun spice.

What emerged was a hit, except that more people showed up than we had expected, so kebabs had to be ordered to supplement the fish. I usually cook for more people than are invited, but that evening I miscalculated. The multitasking fish was wiped out in quicker time than it takes for a loaded table to groan. Better that than the guest mantras.

Baked fish with Cajun and Konkan spice

Serves 3


Half kg surmai (kingfish), cut into a foot-long fillet

Half tsp red chilli powder

Quarter tsp turmeric powder

Juice of half a lime

1 tsp Cajun spice

Salt to taste

1 banana leaf


Rub Cajun spice and salt on one side of the fish. Do the same with the red chilli powder, turmeric and some salt on the other side. Rub in the lime juice mainly on this side and then flip over and apply the remaining small amount on the other side.

Place the fish in the banana leaf and seal with toothpicks. Let it marinate for at least 2 hours.

Bake the fish, wrapped in the banana leaf, in an oven for 35 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Serve hot.

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

Also Read Samar’s previous Lounge columns

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