My answer will and always will, be hilsa

“What’s your favourite kind of fish?” asked Priya.

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Her mouth was full of badly made chicken patty and her legs were propped up on the center table, on which lay few more chicken patties, more horrible than the other. The 6-month-old puppy that hardly looks like a puppy anymore, sniffed around for scraps.

We’d tried to get as much work done on the Help Center article for our travel website, as possible. Curiously, it has given us a lot of clarity. Priya, someone I haven’t introduced to you, is a childhood friend. We met when we were both in the sixth grade, at a dinner party her family threw. She talked my ears off and I just sat there wearing a kimono.

Nineteen years later and we’re partners in a travel start-up, yearning for a nomad life and 26-inch waists. I mean what is the point of running a travel website, if you can’t travel and look fucking fantastic while doing it, right?

On Sunday, we were watching Dipa Karmakar on the vaults during dinner, when the topic of fish came up. In all honesty, we’re Bengalis — we’re always talking about fish. We could be sitting in our grandfather’s armchair complaining about the heat or traipsing the Salt Flats of Utah solo, but we would always talk about (or even better, eat) fish. It can’t be helped, you know. Throughout our school days, we woke up early to our fathers returning from the markets — sweaty, annoyed with the monsoon and complaining about inflation. The green and grey striped synthetic shopping bags would be heaving under fish, mutton and veggies with their leafy tops poking out through the handles.

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Most of the time we wind up eating fish, if lucky, everyday, in curries. Curries with mustard, curries plain with onions and turmeric and sometimes with nigella seeds or soppy with coconut milk. But we also love fish batter-fried, wrapped and steamed in coconut leaves, mashed up in shallow-fried cakes, stuffed into hollowed-out vegetables or even just plain and crispy and salty.

“I like seafood-ish stuff more than fish actually,” Priya continued. “Prawns and squid and stuff.”

I grunted over the patties.

Hilsa. My answer will and always will, be hilsa.

ilish

A freshwater wonder that belongs to the herring family, apparently. A word to the wise, if you haven’t grown up around seafood, I wouldn’t advise you to have hilsa on your own. The fish is bony enough to give the sunfish a run for its money. Even seasoned Bengalis or South Indians who’ve grown up near the coast, keep their eyes peeled and tongues trained while savoring the fish. This could easily discourage you from trying the ilish (another name for it). But the lure of the hilsa is real.

It is more of a meaty fish than a fishy fish, if that makes any sense. You can douse it in an oily slurry of mustard and onions or in a crude coconut sauce, it’ll come out fragrant and unctuous and utterly irresistible. So much so, that I, once as a 5-year-old, downed five humongous pieces of hilsa at my grandfather’s wake. I even braved my way through all the bones without any adult supervision, such was my vehemence for the fish.

But it doesn’t end there. Hilsa is one of those species which produce roe that can easily melt in your mouth like herbed butter can. If you ever find yourself in a Bengali fish market, make sure it’s raining. Stand in front of the best fishmonger with his hilsa spread on display and ask for a fish with roe.

One of the easiest and no doubt, delicious things that you can do to a hilsa fish that’s fat with roe, is slather it with turmeric powder and salt and shallow fry it in mustard oil. The fish turns dark while the skin turns crispy and golden against the umami of the crunchy-outside-squishy-inside roe. And that is exactly what we did the next morning.

We worked till lunch and I brought out my new Fujifilm Instax 300 Wide. I’m still getting the hang of experimenting with the instant camera, so the photos may not the be best you’ve seen. The morning was cloudy and fraught with UI/UX exercises. But it had hilsa, golden-skinned and nestled between sheets of kitchen paper.

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Fried hilsa

Ingredients:
1 cup of mustard oil (choose one with a strong smell that makes your nose twitch)
6-8 pieces, Hilsa/Ilish (with roe)
1-2 tablespoons of Turmeric powder
Salt, to taste

How-To:

Sprinkle and coat the pieces of fish with turmeric and salt. Leave for 20-30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Heat the oil in a wok till the top starts to smoke. Reduce the heat and fan away the smoke with your hand (be careful!). Pop the fish into the hot oil in batches of 2 or 3. Raise the heat to medium-high. Depending on the size of your wok don’t put in more than 3 or 4. Keep the batches small.

Cover and fry the fish till the pieces starts to darken and the skin goes crispy. Flip the fish after 1 minute and fry for 2 more minutes. Total frying time should not go more than 4 minutes.

Pick the pieces out of oil and leave them on paper towels that’ll soak up the excess oil.

Serve with steamed white rice, dal and big fat wedges of lime.

In two inches of oil

I’m writing to you from the mundane blue and white of my office, where I have taken a break from Excel worksheets to think about food.

This may be the coffee talking, but is there nothing you can’t do with chicken?

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The photo above makes me want to plunge my face into the wok. I don’t want to think about what the hot oil might do to my face. The truth is that I’ve been trying to lose weight. Considering the fact that I’m the last person on earth to conform to a routine life of carefully selected food and regular sessions of well-rounded exercising, this might be the toughest mission I have ever embarked upon.

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Take the mountains’ word for it

We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.

Well, I mean, look. Just look.

Fish Au Gratin, Glenary's - The Subjectivist

The last Friday night was spent swaying in a train, as we made our way to Darjeeling. At one point, the time when my folks honeymooned there, Darjeeling was quaint, cold and romantic. It is still cold. It is no more quaint. And the romance is stale and fragrant-less.

Now it smells of horse-shit, from the ponies that carry children around the market square. It also smells of smoke from the Continue reading

You are what you put in your omelette

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I spent much of 2014 getting nibbled on by a heart surgeon.

Tall, curly hair that fell onto his Michael Caine-ish glasses and a waddle that could give Donald Duck a run for his money. I’m not even joking.

He was charming, which I found to be a novelty because I haven’t been around too many charming doctors. Unless you count those who come up with uncomfortable puns depending on whatever illness you’ve gone to them with. Maybe learning how to pun is part of the Gross Anatomy syllabus, who knows.

Our first date was in China Town where he watched me gorge on golden fried prawns and siu mai. On our second date he watched me down three gimlets and a plate of tandoori chicken. On our third date he explained an extremely complicated heart procedure — that he was apparently quite good at performing — over cherry ice-cream. By the fourth date he knew my dating history and I knew that his first cousin’s brother-in-law’s best friend had a questionable mole on his right cheek.

On the day he wanted our families to meet, Rana brought his Continue reading

When all else fails

If anyone tells you that you can’t spend an entire weekend in half-prostrate on your bed with your laptop balanced on your stomach, surfing through food blogs for inspiration with your left hand stuck in large bag of Cheetos, then cut them out of your life. You don’t need that kind of negativity.

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Before anything else, let me warn you that I don’t have a recipe today. If you’re leaving then I’ll see you again in a few days!

Over the last couple of years, my habit of surfing through food blogs has largely dwindled. Sometimes when the load is light at work, I tilt the laptop screen at an angle that makes it difficult for my co-workers to notice what website I’m on. And then I go visit the food blogs that speak poetically about onions and bean soup, pieces on food tech start-ups, food movements in China and I especially pore over the ones by travelling gluttons. But gorgeous websites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting has remained largely untouched for the last two or three summers.

The last two days however, have been enlightening. I’ve learnt that I’m one of those unmarried, Continue reading

A chicken roll that won’t let you forget

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“Isn’t it to die for?” My friend gushed breathlessly between bites of Kati Roll.

I was meeting her after 10 long years smack dab in the middle of rain-infested New York City, and she’d dragged me to Greenwich Village to taste a popular Bengali import (or export? Import, if you’re anywhere out of West Bengal).

The chicken roll.

Except that the Kati Roll Company is calling it the Kati Roll.

Versions — diluted, exaggerated and almost always awful — of the quintessential roll in various parts of India, do actually go by that name, so I can’t blame them.

Gujarat (and the Indian West Coast in general) has a version, inexplicably known as a Frankie, where the chicken is tomato red in color and amount of spice will produce a hole in your chest. Delhi’s back alleys produce “rolls” that are made of succulent kebabs wrapped in flimsy rumaali roti. Note how the word “roll” is within quotes.

I once also had a Bengali cook at an Indian food stall on Portobello Street make me chicken roll that had a white yogurt-based sauce that brought forth the same kind of emotions that underwear stuck in your butt-crack brings.

“Isn’t this the best chicken roll you’ve had outside of Kolkata?” She gushed again, this time looking directly at me. I nodded vigorously, making sure my mouth was too full to speak and hoped she couldn’t make out how much I wanted to dump that roll on her head.

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We are of the seafood

Very rarely would you find a Bengali hauling a bag of squid or octopus home, to have for lunch.

It could be faintly surprising to outsiders considering how religiously we’re devoted to our seafood. No, really. We mummify dead fish, with shiny scales and twinkly eyes and exchange them as gifts at weddings. In case of a death in the family, it is customary to break a 14-day mourning period by eating, that’s right, fish. The bonier the better.

calamari

We put fish, fried, braised or steamed, on our plates everyday, at least for one meal. At least. We know and love our seafood as much as we love our Darjeeling and our afternoon naps. We pick the bones out with our fingers, eat them with our hands, suck and chew on the soft fish heads, lick our fingers clean and heave a giant burp out of our full bellies when were done. We are of the seafood.

Are you slowly backing away out of here yet?

egg

If not, then you’re in for a treat.

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