Takeaway

No hurry, ’tis the midday curry

Rupleena Bose | Updated on March 08, 2019

Give us today our daily fish: For those who happen to miss the daytime machher jhol at home, Kolkata has plenty of “pice hotels” where varieties of fish are served   -  ISTOCK.COM

The afternoon fish dish is a way of life across several states in India

In the crumbling old mansion of the Sanyal family in north Kolkata, lunchtime was a prelude to restful siesta. It was not the hour of conversation or catch-up, or telephone calls. However, it’s at lunch that this family, in Aparna Sen’s film Paromitar Ek Din (2000), learns of the death of its patriarch. As she takes in the sudden news, wife Sanaka (played by Sen) chews on the last piece of fish held between her curry-stained fingers. That piece of rui (carp), sucked clean to the bone, symbolised much more than food for the just-widowed woman. It stood for the closing of a chapter and the beginning of another — widowhood, in many families in Bengal, is synonymous with being vegetarian.

Fish is both desire and leisure in Bengal. Only in Bengal is there a fish-loving ghost (mechho bhoot), known to raid kitchens for the daily piece of fish. In the state that survived the catastrophic famine of 1943, fish is privilege and memory for some and the object of everyday love for others.

My earliest understanding of the seriousness of the fish-meal was in the year I spent in Kolkata in the mid-’90s. I was a bewildered 13-year-old who was asked to consume rice, dishes with bitter vegetables and fish curry before boarding the school bus from home every day. I was also the confused teenager who watched office-goers run to the bus stop after such heavy meals. For the authentic Bengali, nothing came in the way of his or her enjoyment of the compulsory daytime fish curry.

For those who missed out on the afternoon dish from the family kitchen, the city offered — and still does — the no-frills comfort of “pice hotels” or large dining halls that serve varieties of fish. The fish roll of Dacres Lane, a haven for street food in central Kolkata, comes a close though greasy second to the light, fragrant machher jhol that has inspired literature, films, art and debates.

Delicious prelude: The Goan fish thali is an integral part of the culture of a state that is equally passionate about siesta   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Among the fish that adorns the Bengali’s plate, the year-round favourite is the rui, a freshwater jewel. In The Calcutta Cookbook, authors Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha write: “The Bengalis were amongst the foremost maritime people of the subcontinent. They navigated the rivers and the seas and caught vast netfuls of fish and crustaceans, the freshwater variety in particular.”

There is probably a fish preparation for every mood: A light soup with nigella seeds for overbearing summers; a rich yoghurt gravy for those moments of self indulgence; a mustard or poppy-based dish for languorous afternoons, and the rich fish gravy with raisins served at weddings.

Whatever the recipe, the taste of the afternoon curry seeps into the siesta it induces. It is a moment of leisure that preserves the memory of the consumed meal, because amongst Bengalis, meals are desired and consumed in repetition, once in taste and recounted several times in words.

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If the afternoon siesta were to have another life in a parallel narrative, it would live it well in a place like Goa. In the state where fishing is a vital part of life and livelihood, the day is neatly divided into two parts, before and after the fish thali. The Goan fish platter is probably the most stable (read unchanging) meal I have ever had. It is a visual (now Instagram-able) delight with everything on the plate at once, unlike the strict course-by-course eating ritual in Bengal.

The Goan thali has some vital ingredients: One vegetable, sol kadi made with kokum (a souring agent), rava (semolina)-crusted fish fry, coconut-based gravy with another fish, mussels and rice. The fried fish can be anything from kingfish, mackerel, chonak (giant sea perch) to the deep-sea modso.

A few years ago when my writer friend Mihir was in Goa for work, he was taken to the compulsory afternoon fish lunch by his colleagues. To their bewilderment, Mihir announced that he ate only vegetables. In reply, he was told that fish, in Goa, was just like a vegetable --- abundant and all pervasive. Perhaps out of astonishment, Mihir accepted the explanation and went on to consume fish. Since then, the fish thali is the only aberration to his vegetarian self and an integral part of his naturalisation as Goan.

Fish indeed is everyman’s meal in Goa, a catch that he/she can procure in the sea as well as the ponds, creeks and rivers, even without visiting the local market. Fish is cheaper than vegetables and fishing a way of life that blurs class boundaries in the villages of Goa. When a village, in control of the ponds and rivers in the area, auctions water pockets called ‘poins’ for an annual rate of ₹25,000-30,000, various families rent the same in order to gather fresh prawns and escape fluctuating market prices.

Very often, women in these families sell the morning catch from these poins along roads and highways apart from the bustling market in Mapusa. Just as noon nears, handwritten boards declare ‘Meals Ready’, ‘Fish Thali Available’ or ‘Today’s Catch Fresh Prawns’.

Fish curry-rice is the lifeline of the state that slips into slumber after a busy morning of catching, cleaning and cooking. The siesta also brings necessary respite from the sweltering tropical sun before the sea ushers in the cool evening breeze (and the post-sunset ritual of butter-garlic calamari and prawns).

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Coming back to the fish curry of the east, we must also remember the varieties in Assam (its tangy massor tenga much loved even outside the state) and Odisha (blessed with food havens such as Puri, the abundant Chilika Lake and Bhubaneswar). Down south, there is chepala pulusu in Andhra Pradesh and the Chettinad-style fish curry in Tamil Nadu.

Coastlines and their recipes for fish are like destinies that are not meant to collide or converge. Until of course they do — as in the case of my Bengali friend Radha and her husband S, a Malayali.

When Radha married S, they were both in their late-40s and settled in their profession. S’s mother, nearing 85 years, lived in a Kerala village far from the reaches of a city. Radha found in her an eager foodie and a friendly in-law while the latter drew comfort from the knowledge that Bengalis, too, love fish.

During her first vacation in S’s parental home in Kerala, Radha offered to cook a quintessential Bengali-style fish curry for lunch one day. The matriarch agreed, proceeding to ask Radha how she wanted the coconut for the curry — only to be told that there was no role for it in the recipe in question. In fact, there are several such recipes that are coconut-less. Impossible, muttered the octogenarian, as she retreated from the kitchen in a state of disbelief. It seemed an act of betrayal that the fish, the scaly creature she had known and loved all her life, could lend itself to (im)possibilities. (though Kerala also has some recipes without the coconut).

Nonetheless, the afternoon panned out well. Radha’s fish-based wonder made delicious inroads and two food destinies were sealed with the generous helpings of the humble curry.

Rupleena Bose teaches English literature at Delhi University

Chhoto machher chochchori

  • (A recipe from Cooch Behar district, North Bengal; serves 4)

Ingredients

  • Mourola fish (small): 500g
  • For the marinade:
  • Onion paste: 5-6 tbsp
  • Garlic: 3-5 cloves
  • Ginger: 1 tsp, crushed
  • Coriander powder: 2 tbsp
  • Cumin powder: 2 tbsp
  • Red chilli powder: 1 tbsp
  • Green chillies: 5, slit
  • Mustard oil: 150 ml
  • Salt to taste

Method

  1. Clean the fish thoroughly and pat dry.
  2. Marinate the fish for 15 minutes.
  3. In a deep pan or kadhai, heat oil. When piping hot, add the fish and the marinade. Lower the flame to medium and fry for three minutes. Shake the kadhai lightly to ensure the fish is fried evenly (too much stirring will break the fish).
  4. Flip the fish gently after three minutes and let the other side fry.
  5. Flip the fish one last time, before putting a lid on the kadhai.
  6. Cook for about 15 minutes on low heat. Serve hot with rice.

Aila varutharachathu

Recipe courtesy: Lubna Shaheen; serves 4)

Ingredients

  • Aila (mackerel): 1 kg (whole or cut)
  • For the masala:
  • Coconut grated: 1 cup
  • Chilli powder: 2 tbsp
  • Coriander powder: 2 tbsp
  • Fennel seeds: 1 tbsp
  • Garlic: 5 to 8 cloves

For gravy:

  • Turmeric powder: 1 tsp
  • Tamarind juice to taste
  • Curry leaves: 10-12
  • Ginger: 1 big piece, crushed
  • Green chillies: 4
  • Salt to taste
  • Coconut oil
  • For garnish:
  • Shallots: 5 to 8

Method

  1. Roast grated coconut, coriander powder and chilli powder. Grind this together with fennel and garlic.
  2. Heat oil in a kadhai. Add the gravy ingredients to the ground masala. Add water and let it come to a boil.
  3. Add the mackerel to the gravy and cook till done.
  4. Slice 5-8 shallots and fry in hot coconut oil. When browned, add this to the curry and serve hot with Kerala rice.

Published on March 08, 2019

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