THIS is an unusual travelogue with nine essays wherein the author uses the production and conception of fish to provide insights into the culture and ecology of the subcontinent. In a coastline as long and diverse as India’s, fish inhabit the heart of many worlds – food, culture, commerce, sport, history and society.
In the first essay, describing the preparation and process of eating hilsa in Kolkata, the author says that if Bengali “cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on the Centre Court”, as it is the undisputed champion of fish in the east. Poets have written on it with one calling the ilish, as the hilsa is known in Bengali, “the darling of the waters”. Describing the technique of cooking hilsa by shorsha ilish, the author says that the fish is simmered and served in cuts placed in mustard sauce so pungent that “its wallop reaches right into your sinuses.” The sauce is an assembly of grainy mustard and chillies, turmeric and lemon achieving the sort of bright yellow that is otherwise found only in pots of poster paint. He lists Howrah fish market, Kolaghat and Diamond Harbour as the main outlelts for hilsa, which could be either from the Padma river in Bangladesh or the Ganga in Kolkata. While Bangladeshis prize “the plumper fish from the Padma above everything else”, the Ganga hilsa “is still hilsa, but that is really all that can be said for it. West Bengalis, on the other hand, sympathise with their oriental cousins, who cannot appreciate the intense flavour of the Ganga hilsa”.
Hyderabad is famous for its fish treatment imparted to asthmatics and involves the wilful ingestion of a live murrel fingerling that is stuffed to its gills with an unknown medicine. The history of the method of healing as explained by the Bahini Goud family, which keeps its proprietary treatment a closely guarded secret, dates back to 1845 when the life of one Veeranna Goud changed dramatically. His descendants claim Veeranna was blessed by a sage who taught him the art of using this medicine – a lumpy paste in a vivid shade of yellow.
Narrating the history of an old Catholic fishing community in Tamil Nadu, the author talks about his meeting with Jacob Aruni, who accidentally discovers the fish ‘podi’, a dried fish powder that is found in every fisherman’s hut in Tamil Nadu. It is eaten with hot steamed rice for a meal and which is not found anywhere else, be it Andhra Pradesh or Kerala.
Describing the fiery cuisine and the singular spirit of Kerala’s toddy shops, the author says that the toddy is called aana mayaki and is taken with kappa-meen, a curry with a bland, steamed lumps of tapioca tempered with coconut and chillies and karimeen, a perfectly shaped pearl spot fish, hollowed out and stuffed with masala and fried crisp.
What he feels about travelling is that it “does nothing better than swinging a wrecking-ball into even your most meagre expectations” and that the real process of discovery works “not by revealing things you know nothing about, but by revealing how wrong you were about what you did know,” and that the rhythms and habits of lives on the coast are “so alike because they have been shaped by the same force of Nature” – the sea.
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