Par­tial to fish

Esquire (UK) - - CULTURE - By Jeet Thayil

I use cook­books to cook but I also read them for plea­sure. For some rea­son, food writ­ing, when done right, de­lights us in a way other kinds of in­struc­tion do not. We re­turn to it, and savour it, for rea­sons other than the util­i­tar­ian; and though the plea­sure has ev­ery­thing to do with the util­i­tar­ian, it is the ur­gent prose that brings it home, prose that is “clear as sun­light, cold as the curled wave, or­di­nary as a tum­bler of is­land wa­ter”, to bor­row a line from Derek Wal­cott.

Here, from Larousse Gas­tronomique, is a de­scrip­tion of bream: “found across Europe… has a green­ish-brown back and its sides and belly are grey with shiny gold spots… soaked in fresh wa­ter to elim­i­nate the taste of silt, for they rest and feed at the bot­tom of rivers.” As with crime writ­ing, we are given in­for­ma­tion about some­thing we may not have known be­fore, in this case the ap­pear­ance and habits of a fish; and the pos­si­ble use­ful­ness of the recipes that fol­low pro­vide us with fur­ther sat­is­fac­tion, even when we have no in­ten­tion of en­ter­ing the kitchen.

There are some writ­ers you hope one day to meet. For me, Buwei Yang Chao was cer­tainly one of them. Below is a pas­sage from How to Cook and Eat in Chi­nese, a 1970 vol­ume by Mrs Chao. Born in China, she grad­u­ated from the Tokyo Women’s Med­i­cal Col­lege and de­scribed her­self as a doc­tor who “ought to be prac­tis­ing in­stead of cook­ing.” She was a res­i­dent of Cal­i­for­nia and the chal­lenge of cook­ing Chi­nese food in Amer­ica is a con­stant in her book.

“The cook­ing of a Chi­nese fish dish in Amer­ica be­gins with an ar­gu­ment with your fish man. You get a nice fresh carp and tell him to keep his head. But by habit he does it the usual way, and when you open your pack­age af­ter you get home, you find that you have lost your head. Next time you go, you com­plain about last time, and he is so nice apol­o­gis­ing that you are en­cour­aged to go Chi­nese once more. So when he cleans the fish, you tell him, twice, to keep its tongue in its cheek, be­cause that is the best part of the fish. Since he has never heard of such a thing, he can­not lo­cate the tongue and throws it away to­gether with the gills. But he is a nice man. Keep your tem­per and you will soon be able to keep your tongue.” There fol­lows recipes for var­i­ous fish dishes, in­clud­ing one for “clear-sim­mered shad”, which ends with this use­ful tip: “En­joy the fat ab­dom­i­nal part first, while you are still hun­gry, and eat the leaner back and tail parts as you be­come fuller.”

By now the reader might have no­ticed that I am par­tial to fish. There are other food writ­ers I en­joy read­ing, and there are other recipes I fol­low, but there is a rea­son I like read­ing about seafood: it was the sta­ple of my child­hood.

I was born into a Syr­ian Chris­tian fam­ily in river­ine Ker­ala, In­dia’s south­ern­most state, where seer, king­fish and mack­erel were eaten year round. Also avail­able were oys­ters, sharks, black pom­frets, tiny sil­ver­fish and sar­dines. In short, there was al­ways seafood on the ta­ble, pre­pared in a va­ri­ety of ways: cur­ried, deep-fried, shal­low-fried, steamed, dried, smoked. Some of th­ese meth­ods were a com­bi­na­tion of Malay­ali and Can­tonese cook­ing strate­gies.

I was eight when my fam­ily moved from Bom­bay to Hong Kong and my mother con­verted many of her new friends to the plea­sures of Ker­ala red fish curry, a min­i­mal­ist in­ven­tion that de­rived its power from es­chew­ing the generic gin­ger-gar­lic-onion creami­ness of North In­dian cur­ries for the sharper re­wards of red chilli pow­der and ku­dampuli, also known as gam­bodge, Mal­abar tamarind or fish tamarind. My mother first started cook­ing the dish at the age of 23, in 1957, when she was newly mar­ried and liv­ing in Bom­bay and “didn’t know how to make a cup of tea”.

In the early 2000s, I was newly mar­ried and liv­ing in New York when my par­ents came to visit. My mother left us with a clutch of hand­writ­ten recipes, in­clud­ing one for her fish curry. At the time we had no idea that salmon, prawns and tuna would soon be over­fished, un­sus­tain­able, the kind of food you could not jus­tify catch­ing or buy­ing; we did not imag­ine that in 10 or 15 years, taste­less, farmed tilapia and basa would flood the mar­kets and restau­rant menus of the world; we could not have con­ceived that the choice of food would be­come an act at once moral, geopo­lit­i­cal, and eco­log­i­cal. And I did not know that in fewer than five years I would be back in In­dia, re­learn­ing the never-to-be-for­got­ten-again les­son of how to live alone.

Here, tran­scribed from my mother’s cramped, some­times il­leg­i­ble hand is the recipe for her red fish curry, which, as Mrs Chao knew, is one of those dishes that must be adapted to the mar­ket forces of one’s neigh­bour­hood, and the salmon sub­sti­tuted with a lo­cally caught fish.

Jeet Thayil’s new novel The Book of Choco­late Saints (Faber) is out now

Illustration by Kimi and 12

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