Myriad tastes of India

Last Updated 10 July 2010, 10:22 IST

From bobbing about in a boat mid-sea to partaking of many a memorable meal on land, Samanth follows his fish from the net to the plate with unbridled energy and

His well-researched book is undoubtedly on fish — alive or smoking; whole or sliced; filleted, roasted or grilled — caught and consumed with intense concentration in India’s coastal towns. But, more importantly, it is a lively treatise about all — good, bad and ugly — that is associated with the production and consumption of fish.

Landscapes and waterscapes throb with life as he sketches the culture and ecology of coastal India and its rich tapestry of characters. Whether it is Vasanthi, the no-nonsense chef at a star hotel who de-bones the hilsa with the deft strokes of an artist or the rake-thin, dhoti-clad, articulate Harinath Bathini Goud of ‘fish-cure’ fame in Hyderabad, everyone contributes to make the story fascinating.

Many of Samanth’s fishermen friends are deeply serious about taking all the measures — from reducing over-fishing to preventing pollution — necessary to keep the stocks in the sea healthy. They talk sustainability because they are trying very hard not to self-destruct. No wonder, telling the story of where the fish come from is so important.
Extraordinary stories about the ancient art of building boats in Gujarat, the lives of Mumbai’s first people — the Kolis, the singular spirit of Kerala’s toddy shaap’s, the history of an old Catholic fishing community in Tamil Nadu and the energetic hunt for the world’s fastest fish off the coast of Goa keep the narrative pulsating. The author wakes up at 3 am in Calcutta to watch people elbow-deep in slime and scales, pick among the discards from the just-hauled net and find a delicious use for everything, including the unsellable and undersized.

As he travels from coast to coast and from dockyard to fish market, Samanth takes you on a voyage of discovery, loss, nostalgia and adventure. As he wades,
at times gingerly and at times purposefully, into the lives of those who gut and
fillet with gusto, he is rewarded with warm stories, delicious curries and precious recipes.
He also discovers dozens of versions of cooking fish — with fresh coconut in Mangalore, tapioca in Kerala, mustard in Calcutta and kokum in a Koli kitchen. The sharpness of the flavours presents a perfect complement to the fragrant fish and a zing to his story. But as chefs and connoisseurs reiterate, if the catch is fresh, all this is needless complication as the fish don’t need much help!

For anyone who thinks cooking fish is difficult, he believes, a quick lesson from pretty Shailaja is a must. For housewives like her, turning out the perfect, creamy Mangalore fish curry is a relaxed operation, both in approach and in the cooking, which lets the main ingredient speak for itself, rather than swamping it with culinary showing off.
 Samanth’s lore is absorbing and his book arresting because he maps the myriad tastes of the Other India, outside five-star restaurants, swish bistros and funky cafes, as heads to the unlikeliest of places to eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, unearthing the most fascinating tales about fish — and people. 

Savour the story of the autorickshaw ride in Alleppey punctuated with innumerable stops at toddy ‘gardens’ — beat up shacks really — to down everything from arrack-mixed toddy to battery-acid toddy!  Never mind if you belong to the growing tribe that views each piece of meat as a germ-infested time bomb ready to unleash horror, the book will still keep you busy and happy. Because the author approaches fish — be it the hilsa in Kolkata, the bangda in Mangalore or the karimeen in Kerala — with deep academic interest and refreshing humour.

A gifted raconteur, his stories are a riot of colour and possibility. Take, for instance, the description of the Hyderabad fish ‘cure’ spectacle, where hundreds of breathless ‘believers’ wait patiently in snaking lines from dusk to dawn to have a live murrel stuffed down their queasy throat. Or, the controlled drama that unfolds every time a man in a boat waits for a misguided fish to wander into his net.

The nice thing is that the book has no showy parts — no glossy travel pictures to chronicle the journey or complicated graphs to explain the fish economy. Instead, what it has in plenty is gripping stories of fly fishermen, fishmongers and fish-eating folk. Everyone from the armchair traveller to the gourmet traveller is sure to describe this book as a prized catch, because it is satisfying, infectiously enthusiastic and full of wonderful anecdotes.  

(Published 10 July 2010, 10:22 IST)

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