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Prawn curry (Top); and grating coconut with an old brass grater (bottom). Courtesy: Samar Halarnkar
Prawn curry (Top); and grating coconut with an old brass grater (bottom). Courtesy: Samar Halarnkar

Time, tradition and a tale of quarantine

A crustacean surprise during the pandemic, the elasticity of time, a culinary rediscovery and a god propitiated

Just as we had accepted that meals of chicken curry, cabbage, carrots and spinach were our best bets to survive these grim quarantine days, my mother got a call from old man Rabbani.

She was clearly delighted to hear from her friend, whose stall in Bengaluru’s Cox Town market—I noticed while walking by during the lockdown—was either shut or selling only some miserable-looking mackerel in a plastic bowl. Such a sad fall from the pre-covid-19 days, when Rabbani’s overflowed with fish and crustaceans from every coast, river and lake.

He did not have our usual special treat, Bombay duck, but he did have prawn and black pomfret. We were disbelieving. Prawns during a lockdown? Was there some notification drafted by a Goan under-secretary in the Union government that decreed the zoological order decapoda an essential commodity? This is not unbelievable, given the government’s penchant for grand announcements.

How, asked my mother, not a little suspicious, did you get prawn? Oh, from Kerala, he said airily. I thought about this a bit. Karnataka has blocked highways from northern Kerala to prevent patients seeking urgent medical attention by crossing over to the hospital hub of Manipal. But other “essential commodities" are let through. Presumably, that includes some crustaceans.

Not overthinking the Rabbani offer, my mother promptly ordered a kilogram of prawn and fish. Live for the day. Who knew if decapoda would get similar easy passage during the days ahead.

With no household help available to my parents, the wife, child and I have moved in and taken over their kitchen. This means I can pretty much cook what I want and browbeat my mother to acquiesce. She chafes at my dictatorial ways but there is no choice.

The arrival of the prawns was preceded by the usual mounds of dishwashing and emptying dry, wet and sanitary waste (yuck, there is so much we take for granted). I momentarily left home to run some errands, and since the police had recently seized the neighbour’s car, I switched to my bicycle. The nine-year-old, who is doing a magnificent job of keeping herself occupied without friends and outings—a few shouting matches with parents are acceptable—came along. It was the first time she was riding on a cycle handlebar and she found it scary and thrilling. After some excited screaming, she enjoyed the sensation of barrelling down empty roads with the wind in her hair and feet stretched out.

When we returned, my mother had washed the prawns, even though I had forbidden it because of the strain it puts on her back. The fish and prawn were being neatly drained in colanders right below her little puja stall, at the feet of the gods themselves. That included our kuladevata Vetal, our clan deity, who would appreciate such offerings.

If you encounter the original idols of Vetal in rural Goa, you will find a god with generous canines, a knife or sword in one hand and a goblet of wine in the other. He is normally, well, starkers. In recent years, as a more prudish variety of Hinduism has gained ground, generously endowed Vetals have been diplomatically covered up in white lungis.

In the event, the sight of the raw prawns before the crimsoned image of Vetal—it says “Halarn, Goa" at the bottom, referring to our home village—got me thinking. For two decades now, I have championed, including in this column, a quick and easy interpretation of my grandmother’s Goan fish curry.

But time, an elusive seductress in normal times, makes herself available in languorous fashion these days. So, instead of using a tetra pack of coconut milk, I fished out a coconut, smashed it on the ground, gave the water to the daughter and prepared to go back to my roots.

Didn’t you have a grater? I asked my mother. While she was thinking, I rummaged through her cupboard and found a dusty, old brass version which I remembered from my childhood. I recalled an aunt sitting on the floor, expertly turning the handle and scraping out the coconut. I had done this as well but more than a quarter-century had passed since.

I sat on the floor, anchored the 57-year-old grater below my right foot and started turning the handle. My skills came flooding back and soon I had a pile of moist, grated coconut. Within 30 minutes, my prawn curry was ready, violently red, tangy and not overly spicy.

What better way to celebrate the finished product than to submit it to Vetal for approval (see photograph): Since he is the strong, silent type, he did not say much. But was that a wink of approval?

Goan prawn curry

Serves 5

Ingredients

750g peeled prawns, marinated in K tsp turmeric, salt and 2 tbsp lime juice

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tomato, chopped

3 tsp vegetable oil

9-10 pieces kokum, soaked in warm water, or 2 tsp tamarind paste

For the masala, grind together (with a little water)

2 cups grated coconut

8-9 dried Kashmiri chillies

1 tsp cloves

10 cloves garlic

3 tsp coriander seeds

2 tsp cumin seeds

Method

Heat oil in a non-stick wok and fry the marinated prawns for 2 minutes. Set aside. Fry onion until translucent, add tomatoes and fry for 3 minutes. Add the ground masala and fry well for 5 minutes. Add water to make a curry. Lower flame, and when it starts to bubble, add kokum with water. Mix well and add prawns. Take off gas within 5 minutes and serve hot with red or white rice.

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.

@samar11

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Old brass grater
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