No, I don’t like fish. I don’t like their staring eyes, as they lie stacked in a fisherwoman’s stall. Nor do I think they look any better when they’re lying on ice in a five-star hotel’s buffet, waiting to be grilled or curried, as per your wish. I do not like the peculiar ‘fishy’ smell they have that makes most fish eaters go weak in the knees. What I do like, however, is the in between stage – when a glistening, moist, pink piece of fishy flesh gets itself coated in some batter and sprinkled with bread crumbs and then thuds onto a sizzling pan. It turns the perfect shade of golden-brown and miraculously, hides beneath its crusty, crumbly exterior, flesh that is still soft and creamy – flesh that detaches itself from the thorn-like bones without a protest.
Of course, I’m not fussy in these matters. I also like looking at fish that has been cooked in a curry that is a belligerent shade of red. Or the milder, more inviting coconut-based green and white curries. Or when it is slathered in mustard paste, and steamed in a banana leaf. Or even when it is simply grilled till it’s nearly falling apart and swimming in its buttery, lemony sauce. But that’s it. If you ask me to eat the morsels I’ve so lovingly described, I’ll decline. Yes, I know it’s peculiar. You might even – like many have before – wonder at how a Mallu such as myself can NOT eat fish. But honestly, there are only two occasions I remember having actually enjoyed fish – once when I plopped a piece of grilled pomfret into my mouth out of curiosity only to feel it melt away into buttery oblivion. The other time was when I had a piece of steamed hilsa –a dish that has been so eulogized and mythologized that I felt I had to try a piece of it. But those are the exceptions. It deeply saddens me when I can’t eat fish my mom has dished up for my dad and I still look longingly at the fried rawas and thinly sliced salmon that my friends occasionally gorge on.
Anyway, the reason I brought up my peculiar relationship with fish is that I happened to read Following Fish by Samanth Subramanian. I needed a break after the heaviness that was Beautiful Thing, and I couldn’t have picked a better book to lighten my mood. Following Fish is essentially a compilation of nine essays on different coastal communities of India. The one thing they all have in common is fish and the art of fishing. Subramanian has been quite catholic in his exploration of fish traditions in India – he’s not only explored the culinary aspect, as he does in the essays on Bengal’s beloved ilish and Mangalore’s famous fish curry; he’s also talked about the art and activity of fishing in Goa and the fishing boat industry in Gujarat.
What strikes one the most while reading this book is Subramanian’s immense passion and devotion to fish. In his quest to uncover the various ways in which fish influences the lives of coastal communities in India, he’s travelled miles in various modes of transport – not all of them air-conditioned – and has tasted more fish that one can even name. He’s tried scary curries that look like their main ingredients are oil and red chilli powder and has spent patient hours waiting besides Goan anglers. His enthusiasm is quite infectious and his writing is conversational and breezy, although occasionally he gets positively lyrical in his descriptions. It’s not just foodies and fish lovers who will appreciate his prose:
“The mackerel in Pravara’s nisot had been cooked so thoroughly that it disintegrated into creamy flakes at the merest touch. Even the heady scent of that steamy broth – aromatic from the spices, piquant from the tamarind and full of that wonderful, fishy infusion – would be enough to raise men from their deathbeds, let alone their sickbeds. On the invalid’s tongue, the strong flavour of nisot must dance like champagne bubbles, homing in on the sinuses and restoring life to taste buds dulled by medication.”
This was an excerpt from his essay on the Koli community of Mumbai and their particular cuisine, which so few of us really know. In fact, this is one of my favourite essays – combining a great zeal for culinary exploration with a real sense for a community’s history. Another favourite is the one set amongst Goa’s anglers. If you’ve read The Old Man and The Sea, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu; not in the prose – the lushness of Subramanian’s prose is so different from the starkness of Hemingway’s style – but in way it conveys the special relationship that fishermen share with the fish they seek to capture. Here, the quarry is not the marlin, but the scarily fast sailfish. However the whole activity – unrelenting in its demand for patience, mental alertness and sheer brute force is the same. It’s fascinating. And so is the book.