Partial to fish
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
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