Sometimes, you want to please just one guest, someone whose culinary preferences are unknown to you, someone who may not be particularly communicative about them.
That guest was an 11-year-old, my friend’s daughter, who had relocated from northern California to balmy Bengaluru for a year. She was, her mother said, trying to wrap her head around monthly tests, the Devanagari script—which she had grasped within five days—and Sanskrit, which she was learning with enthusiasm.
My friend narrated how her mortified daughter had also run into some culinary apartheid, her classmates peering into the pasta in her lunch box and asking if it was “non veg", for no other reason, I assume, than that she looked part American, which she is. The interesting thing, of course, is that the 11-year-old is, like most of her family, vegetarian, except that she has fish.
Fish, as you might have grasped, dear regular reader, is not just my comfort food but something I am very comfortable cooking. Fish is my family’s staple and tradition. My “strictly vegetarian"—as she always put it—grandmother was a fish eater (unless you are from India’s coasts, don’t try to understand that). When faced with hungry stomachs and empty kitchen shelves, I have always cooked ajji’s simple, easy and aromatic Goan fish curry.
So, how hard could it be to cook fish for an 11-year-old who is entirely familiar with Indian culture and food? But as I ground the shredded coconut, onion and spices to make the base for the fish curry, I pondered. This girl understood Kannada, learnt Sanskrit and sang Indian classical music. But she was, my gut told me, also a California girl, and while she had been brought up to never acknowledge spice as alien, perhaps she might like something that, well, reminded her of home?
Now, I admit I may have a warped idea of California, home of Silicon Valley and the resistance to US President Donald Trump. In my days there, teaching a semester at Berkeley-University of California, I experienced California cuisine in all its creative, globalized glory. Farmers’ markets overflowing with organic produce, sold by well-dressed farmers. Shelves of organic milk, exotic breads and craft beer, notable not just for the myriad brands but for their exceptional quality. Food trucks that fused Korean with Hawaiian, Vietnamese with Mexican (with names like “Phoking Awesome"). Our neighbourhood restaurant was Chez Panisse, a revered culinary icon of California’s slow-cooking and farm-to-table movements: creative, trendy and chic.
In my mind, the 11-year-old hiding under the dining table as she played hide-and-seek with my daughter and returning for lunch flushed after cycling was a representative of this high culinary culture.
Of course, she may have been happy with a burger, but it was a day to give wing to some creativity. I had, the previous night, reacquainted myself with the culinary traditions of those other great fish eaters, the Spaniards. Their approach to fish might, perhaps, be more California-esque than Goan fish curry.
Indeed, the Spaniards do a lot of fish sauces, using brandy, white wine, fish stock and a minimum of artificial flavour—a few grains of saffron or the scrapings of one red pimento. I did not have fish stock, and I had too many other things to cook to bother with making it. There was no white wine, but I did have an old, unopened bottle of brandy.
Sunday dawned early, as it always does in a household with a hyperactive nine-year-old girl. We were out cycling at 6.10am and got around to shopping only at 9.30am in typically chaotic fashion, making the rounds of three stores in between forgetting ingredients. Unlike the wife, who likes written lists and lunch plans, I use my head and instincts. The result was that it was 10.30am when I began cooking. Guests were expected at, um, 11.30, and a bit of urgency was obvious by now.
I was still in cycling clothes when our guests, including the 11-year-old California girl, arrived. Used to my slapdash methods, the wife hastily distributed lots of red wine and the pressures of multiple entrées rapidly retreated into a pleasurable haze.
I discarded the spartan Spanish recipes and started cooking—roast chicken, a dal with mint, roasted vegetables and rice. Sannas—spongy Mangalurean versions of idlis—and sourdough from our neighbourhood baker, as good as California’s best, were the accompaniments. Salads always come from the wife, a salad master. The fish kind of evolved, as you can see from the recipe combining Galicia with Gomantak.
When lunch was served, the two girls filled their plates and moved to the kitchen for privacy. I noted my daughter had studiously avoided the fish, opting for roast chicken, her comfort food.
As I walked by them, the preteen, who had not spoken to me until then, suddenly looked up and gravely said: “This fish is really, really good." I wasn’t expecting that, but what better validation than the spontaneous reaction of an 11-year old?
Kingfish with brandy sauce
750g firm, white fish (I used surmai, or kingfish fillets)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 tomatoes, skinned and blitzed
9 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp garam masala
K cup brandy
1 tsp sugar
4 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tsp mint, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Warm the oil in a pan and sauté onion and garlic till they begin to change colour. Add the spices and sauté for a minute on medium heat. Lower the heat, add the tomatoes, mix well and cover for 4 minutes. In another saucepan, heat the brandy with the sugar. With a long matchstick, set the brandy aflame (mine did not light up) and add to the main pan. Add parsley and sauté for a minute. Add salt. Add the fish and spoon the sauce over it, cover for 5 minutes. Open lid, gently turn the pieces over. Close for another 2 minutes, switch off the burner. Garnish with mint. Adjust salt if needed.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.