The end result is flush with fragrance and flavour and one that will not make you miss meat
People think of something called a bhajiya when it rains. I think of kheema.
I have struggled the past three months, consuming unusual quantities of goat, beef, duck, pork and emu. I blame it on Bangalore’s extended monsoon.
The days are breezy but gloomy. As I write this, the palm leaves and gulmohar flowers outside my window are weighed down with fat drops of rain. The white cat that inhabits the garden appears irritated as she carefully picks her way through the slush and tall grass.
The rains do not make me somnolent and housebound. Instead, I tumble out of bed after the morning azaan from the neighbourhood mosque and determinedly set out for a run on the darkened streets. I return invigorated and quite hungry—a prescription for gluttony.
Last week, I realized this inspired gourmandizing was doing me no good, and those two extra kilograms had to be attacked.
I turned, as I always do in times of dietary stress, to my family’s culinary heritage and singular comfort food—fish.
My illiterate but immensely wise grandmother equated fish-eating with vegetarianism. She did not mean to be depreciatory, just as factual as her tradition allowed. Damayanti Halarnkar, mother of 10 and my Ajji, ate fish almost every day she could get it. We all do.
I must place the Halarnkar veneration for fish in historical context by taking you to 1760, when the British established naval supremacy along the lush Konkan coast, from what is now Maharashtra down to Goa. They triumphed over the remnants of the fleet of the great Maratha, Shivaji, whose sea warriors slowly degenerated into piracy. It would take until the 1830s to stamp out pirate raids along the creeks and backwaters. The warriors-turned-pirates were called Aarmari Marathas, or Marathas of the Aarmar, the navy. As a community, they were called Gabits, a term that supposedly evolved from the Arabic word for gunboat, Gurab.
Gabits, which is what we are, do not constitute an official caste; we are mostly listed as backward Marathas. I learned most of this from a fascinating 1983 Marathi book called Gabit Kshatriya Armari Gharanyancha Itihas (A History of the Gabit Kshatriya Naval Community), which explores who we are, where we came from and what we eat.
There we are on page 76, the Halarnkars. In the references, there is an excerpt from “The Ethnographic Survey of Bombay, 1906". Gabits, it says, “caused serious loss by their piracies", and are now chiefly fishermen and sailors. At the end, it says, “They eat the flesh of goats, sheep, hares, deer, wild bears, fowls and fish and drink liquor."
That explains everything, doesn’t it?
But even a former pirate, devoid of the physical exertions of his forefathers, will balloon if he isn’t careful. So, I returned to fish last week, helped by my vegetarian wife who cheerfully troops down to Russell Market, a colonial-era shopping hub, on early Saturday mornings to buy me fish.
There, holding her nose but buoyed by our enthusiastic two-year-old, she lays her trust at the stall of her regular fishmonger, who silently points her towards only what is “fresh". She returns with whole white pomfret—which I marinate in a variety of spices and liquids, simple and quick—kané, or ladyfish, and that old family favourite, surmai, or kingfish.
Now, fresh kingfish is a dream, the firm flesh coming off in flakes. Since it is a large fish with a neutral taste, it takes well to a variety of spices.
I was tired of the traditional family recipe for fried kingfish: red chilli powder, turmeric, tamarind or lime, and salt. Inspiration came from Velankani, our part-time cook, a stolid Tamil woman given to long silences—chiefly because she cannot speak Kannada or Hindi, and I cannot speak Tamil. The wife manages with English and gestures.
Vela finds it hard to explain ingredients, so she piles them up on a plate with the kingfish. As my daughter fools around on the monkey bars outside, she points to the piles of spices and says, “half spoon", or “one spoon". Suddenly, she adds, “sugar".
I am startled.
“Sugar," Vela says firmly.
“Good for taste anna (brother)."
It is not something the Gabits would do, but I am no expert on Tamil cooking, which, most people not from around here do not realize, is given to lots of meat, rabbit, crab, fish and beef (depending on religion). In this, they are similar to my ancestors. I say ancestors because modern-day Gabits—save for my family—are considerably less experimentative than they were in the day of Shivaji.
Sugar it is. The other interesting thing is the lack of red chilli powder. Another popular northern misconception is that all southern food is fiery. To me, this works just fine because I can share the fish with my daughter, instead of making a dumbed-down version for her.
The curry leaf, one of my favourite condiments, is added to the kingfish, which is lovely because I use curry leaf in chutney almost every day and occasionally in curries, but I never have used it with fried fish before.
The end result is flush with fragrance and flavour. I do not miss the meat. It gladdens me to know I am, still, a Gabit. Let the monsoon continue on its dreary way.
Curry Leaf Kingfish
Kkg kingfish steaks
K tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
K tsp turmeric powder
15-20 curry leaves
K tsp sugar
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tbsp olive oil
Optional: Juice of 1 lime or 3 tsp tamarind extract
Salt to taste
Marinate the fish in all the ingredients. Set aside for an hour. In a non-stick pan, heat the olive oil. When moderately hot, place the marinated fish and fry till light brown on both sides.
Drain on paper towels and 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.