Of home and fish

For now I sit at a table adorning a mountain view in Dehradun, where you get no fresh fish for miles and miles. But it wasn’t always so. During school, life was easy- summer vacations would come unfailingly, the only mountains I had walked in were those of eastern Goa, and fish was a necessity and regularity in my plate of rice, kokum and buttermilk-coastal indulgences for many, but a way of life for the locals. My grandmother, who like an elephant herd, is the matriarch, also presided (and still does) over the kitchen. So, fish-rice-kokum dominated our palettes and the way of life.

The days in Goa were a beautiful routine. Waking up to the rays of gentle sunlight filtering through red tiles of the roof, the morning chore was to go to the local fish market, helping the elders buy some freshly harvested fish. I would get a discourse on this: look at the eyes, they must not be too opaque or cloudy, the gills must be a fresh baby pink, the flesh inside must feel soft when poked, smell the fresh fish… ah, that smell. Not for the faint-hearted, of course. But I’m drifting… yes, that is how I helped the elder sort some fish and deliver it into the yellowed hands of the matriarchs, who would’ve kept grated coconut and turmeric paste ready, putting to use some archaic instruments that are hardly in use today, relics of the past. Cleaning out the scales, and fins, she would marinate the fish with the paste and add salt. Cats would lurk about, becoming bolder with each minute, mewing and hissing for their share. Then Ajji would add coconut, the oil in the pan crackling and sending out smoke, an earthly smell that makes my eyes close with happiness even today.

Fish is an integral part of the palette and culture. But the elders who taught me how to buy fresh fish were not blind to the perils over-exploitation. There were uncertain unwritten rules to be followed. Come summer and monsoon, we stopped consuming certain fish species. The waters were choppy, the fish breeding, and hence it was understood that to enjoy the year’s bounty of fish, we had to restrain ourselves in this season. But that was not so bad… because mangoes were aplenty, and only momentarily, we kids had a new distraction.When I look back, I realise how in the love of fish, there was also caution and restrain, all designed to ensure that fish would be available not just to one, but the many generations to come. Today, the local traditions have been overtaken by commercial fishing, an activity that harvests everything, as opposed to local fishermen who would supply local demands and hence use nets that caught only targeted species in fewer numbers. The commercial nets spare no species, generate by-catch, and fish in all waters across all seasons… so there is no regard for breeding, catch quantity, or the lives of other species.

These commercial chains supply fish to countless restaurants, fish which ultimately lands into the plates of many people who never have experienced the delight of being served of fish the way I was, or learning about traditional taboos to regenerate fish numbers, the way I was. So can I blame them for either? Not really. Well, what can be done is to tell them about all of this, in an easy way that they can appreciate and follow. It isn’t so hard. People have been doing it for generations. What else can we do easily? Every time we go to restaurants to enjoy fish, we can repeatedly ask restaurants about the source of the fish, whether the sourcing agencies follow any restrictions at all, and urge them to follow the fish calendar. One of me and three of you may not make a huge difference at the surface, but we will create a ripple. This is enough to motivate others to follow suit. And if all of us do this, the ocean waters will move, we will bring change.

For those of you who read through all of this, here is a reward: a fish recipes. Enjoy it, and let me know two things: how the recipes turned out, and if the turmeric smell took you back to the images of a crumbling Konkan house, sights of sunlight through the cracks of the roof and the smell of turmeric-marinated fish wafting through all the rooms and out the windows, promptly inviting questions from passer-bys about what time lunch would be served.