I guess this is one of those fast write ups to convey my urge to unleash words from my mind into paper (connotative), and also my love for the pisces family.
I was born and brought up in a coastal state in the eastern part of India, called Odisha. Fish-and-rice is a staple diet of our state. Crispy fried fish alongside cooked rice soaked in fermented rice water is a common (and delicious) affair that breaks social and economic boundaries and finds its way into the tummies of all households during Indian summer months.
Though we lived not on the coast, but in a small township many miles away from the coast, nothing could deter the fishes from entering our kitchens and spread their fishy aroma loud and clear in our lives, the neighbor’s life, the pet’s (that salivated in the backyard) life, and the lives of those that happened to be within the radius of their aromatic circle.
As a kid, with very little or no gratification for food, eating fish seemed no less than a chore. Why with their million bones, they tortured my delicate fingers, and hurt my palate. The inconvenience had seldom let me appreciate the taste. Mom or dad would assist in separating the flesh from the bones, but it still seemed like an ordeal to gulp down the flesh because there was so much chewing to be done! Not an easy eater I was.
Some years later when my taste buds encountered a paradigm shift for reasons utterly childish and emotional, an entirely new perspective of food dawned on me. It no longer was a daily chore if you will, it had attained the status of a supreme joy-giver. The sheer variety of produce (meat, meatless, seafood, etc.), let alone the variety of flavors they imparted intrigued me. I started devouring food ranging from green leafy vegetables, to the countless-boned fresh water fishes. The struggle in consuming them was very rewarding.
As the epicenter of this post is fish, I will not diverge and come to the point and tell you tales of my love affair with the fishes of ponds, rivers, and seas.
I will assertively state a fact pertaining to cooking fish. FRESH FISH is a winner! You win half the battle without having to use your ladles (read weapons).
The one dish that altered (disbelievingly) my perception of fish was mum’s fish curry in a mustard paste gravy. The ingredients that went into this wonderful creation, including mum’s love gave this dish a status par excellence in my list of favorite foods. And this dish induced fish into the hall of fame in my world of food. The trick lay in how you blended the raw materials into a fine looking full-of-kick mustard paste. Each household has their own rendition, and so did mine. Perfecting the same came to me with time and a lot of patience, and mistakes. At times my paste was bitter, the other times the pungent mustard literally burnt the throat. Taking care of these very crucial attributes of the paste was not only important, but necessary to stay true to the dish, and also to my culinary genes.
Below are two versions of the dish from my part of the country – We tend to add some tang to the dish in the form of either dried mango seeds, or tomato. Purists would stick to only mustard paste curated by blending pre-soaked mustard and green chillies. Variations to this include adding in 1-2 garlic cloves to the blend, and at times cumin as well (3 mustard : 1 cumin). Purists like me would also stick to cooking this using mustard oil. Nothing else in the world comes close to matching the flavor the oil imparts. Sautéing the mustard paste in mustard oil until the raw element no longer exists, is very crucial.
The other fish dish that makes me go weak in my knees is fish in a yoghurt based gravy. I have had multiple versions of the same, and savored them all equally. The one I grew up eating (after my hatred for fish ceased) was a recipe grandma had passed down to dad. Yoghurt is yet another loved milk product of mine and dad. And if you marry fish and yoghurt, I am sure to end up in food heaven (as marriages are made in heaven, no?!).
The above is grandma’s rendition of the popular yoghurt based fish curry. The trick here is to work with quality fish fillets. And to add to the magical flavor of fresh fish fillets dunked in a stew- inspired-slightly-sweet-yoghurt gravy, the curry also derives flavor from tempered green chillies, curry leaves, and panch phoran (a medley of five seeds in equal proportions – cumin, mustard, fenugreek, nigella, fennel), and a generous garnish of cilantro. The fillets should be the right amount of flaky, and the sugar added to the yoghurt should only enhance the savory flavor more. A simplistic dish that does justice to your fish appetite, if you are looking for some variety.
The two varieties of fish dishes discussed are a part of an enormous family of dishes with the piscean species as the central ingredient. Where I come from, there are some more variations that are worth a mention (I am salivating bad as I write this, so I shall stop abruptly at 3) –
- Fish fillets smeared with mustard paste, and/or poppy seed paste, and/or coconut paste,and then wrapped in banana leaf or turmeric leaf and smoked atop a gas stove is an oil free wonder of a dish that always leaves me craving for more.
- A variety of very tiny fish (the equivalent of smelt fishes found in the Atlantic and Pacific), come with such great flavors and are so versatile, I can live for weeks on just rice and tiny fishes cooked in a garlic-tomato gravy, or the quintessential mustard paste gravy.
- When you ask your local fish monger to cut a whole fish for you into steak cuts appropriately sized for making curries, the head of the fish is a catch! Trust me, once you fry it until it so crisp the cartilage breaks, sauté them delicious juicy bones (with some flesh clinging) alongside finely chopped onions, diced potatoes, and any green leafy vegetable (spinach, amaranth, etc.). The flavors that burst in the mouth transport you instantly into food heaven. A picture below can trigger salivation, may be?
I do not think a single post is enough to include all my fish(y) tales. This is a precursor to more tales. The versatility with which you can poach, fry, bake, grill,smoke, and do so much more with fish gives me tremendous joy. Even the thought makes me salivate. And before I let my drool flow, I retire and call it a day.
Happy fish (eat)- ing!