Food: Following Fish

(Published in the Business Standard, June 2010, in the food column)

The arguments against fish are many, especially in a north Indian city like Delhi. Fish is bony — often, in fact, the tastier the fish, the bonier it is. Its fragrance is persistent, and for some, too pungent to handle. Meat is relatively easy to understand; the subtleties of buying fish change from coastline to coastline and can take a lifetime to master.

I rarely order fish in Delhi, which is in keeping with my position of mild apostasy on fish — heretical in a Bengali family. While my sister ate her way through fishheads, whole gunmetal pabda and chunks of hilsa, I had to be fed fish by stealth: mashed, in a fiery mustard chutney. It was only as an adult that I realised why I didn’t like fish — the dislike stemmed from a kind of austere, demanding love.

Eating freshly caught and flash-fried bhekti in the Sunderbans on a river boat was a pleasure; I tucked into karimeen with gusto in Palakkad; tackled a tiny, grimly bony but delicious fish curry in Goa; and ate my way through the fish platter at the once-legendary Ananthashram in Bombay, demanding second helpings. It was the freshness that counted; my palate will tolerate mediocre hamburger or frozen prawns, but seems to jib at anything less than absolutely fresh, perfectly cooked fish.

For all fish apostates — or inadvertent gourmands — I have one recommendation: read Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast (Penguin, Rs 250). This is not just good travel and food writing — as Samanth travels in search of hilsa in Bengal, toddy shop fish curry in Kerala, trawls through fishing communities and examines the live fish treatment for asthma in Hyderabad, he will revive your curiosity and your appetite.

Having a great fish meal requires a lack of embarrassment on the part of the diner (unless you’re eating the standard sole fillet in butter sauce, or sashimi), and while some clubs, restaurants and five-stars serve good fish, your best meals are likely to be in far more humble places. Canteens in Mumbai, shacks in Goa, toddy shops in Kerala, hole-in-the-wall outlets in Kolkata can and do offer meals that rival anything you’d find in the fine dining line.

Eating at Narayan’s in Mangalore, Samanth falls in love with the restaurant’s trademark masala, “the masala that aggregated in fried lumps on the circulating tray like spicy, red snowdrifts”. The thali is served; he works his way through the seer, sardines and ladyfish, then stands next to the kitchen — “simply sniffing at the frying masala on the tawa, deep-breathing fanatically, trying to fill my lungs with enough aroma to last the day”. Travelling in the Kanyakumari district, he meets food maven Jacob Aruni, who introduces him to fish podi, a dried fish powder used like the gunpowder podis, mixed with rice and ghee.

Aruni’s dried mackerel podi, writes Samanth, “looked like powdery jaggery, speckled white in places with coconut, and it had a deep, spicy aroma, shot through with the strong presence of fish. Tasted raw, it races to the back of your throat and proceeds to set your tonsils on fire… They were mackerel with character, bursting out of their envelope of spice like strong actors out of a crowded script.”

When he’s not learning how to eat hilsa, or searching for the perfect, elusive fish curry of childhood memory, Samanth is a wonderful guide to the changing, threatened lives of today’s fishermen, to boat-building yards and the diverse histories of the Portuguese and the Dutch in India.

Two days after reading Following Fish, I found myself in one of Delhi’s small, local markets, searching for hilsa roe and mackerel. The places where you get great fish, rather than cottony, deep-freeze fillets with all the appeal of wilted lettuce, in this city are few but worth browsing, from Andhra Bhavan to Gunpowder, Ploof to Pan Asian, Dakshin to Ai. But if you don’t find yourself drawn to the fishmarkets and then to the spice merchants, and then back to your kitchen to cook after reading Following Fish, I will undertake to travel to Hyderabad and swallow a live murrel, despite my lack of asthma.





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