The Streets of Asia Fish Curry
There is something about fish curry that is reminiscent of grassroots cuisine. Hailing from a coastal city in South of India, fish was not only common but the most affordable ‘meat’ as well. Even though it was a teeming metropolis, that even 15 years ago, exported much of its best catch from the sea, there was abundance enough to share with the domestic consumers.
For the most part, we bought fish from the designated large fish markets that were anything but modern. Fishmongers they were in complete truth — from their gill and blood stained clothes, to the unscrubbable fish odor hanging off them to their very cant of language. Everything that you may have ever read about the fishing class is true and evident in these markets. Added to that, there would be rivulets of fish spiced cleaning water running through the open gutters. Needless, to say, I hated going there on the few times I accompanied my granddad as a child.
Yet, there was a thrill that I would stubbornly not acknowledge resorting to turning up my nose at the filth! First, my granddad loved, nay, thrived in markets. And, I loved him more than anyone I ever did. As the original food lover of the family, he relished hand picking the best produce, haggling, and simply chatting with the vendors, while I either hopped from one foot to another or looked at the very very very fresh fish all around me. Not once ever then, did I think, I would come to cherish those memories.
He has passed since and that may be one reason to hang on to those moments. But, there is also a very pragmatic reason for this nostalgia. Never since I left Asia, a few years later, was I again in proximity to such abundance, variety, freshness and quality of seafood. I saw fish in the market that was kept alive until the moment of purchase, see it wiggling about in a water basin. Some could not be killed even after purchase but needed to kept alive just until being cooked. But, I took them all for granted and simply bemoaned the soiling of my shoes and the sticky odor that is of the sea. Ah! Had I know then?! Well, I suspect, I still would have that petulant teenager!
Even today, fish sellers walk the streets in the city with the morning catch. Sometimes, walking through lesser affluent areas in the evening, you can see fish languishing on wooden boards, not iced, yet looking remarkably sprightly- the benefit of not being processed through multiple temperature zones. Flash freezing is a good compromise but nothing beats simply fresh. Tropical waters are indeed blessed with a variety that can only be dreamt about sitting in the North East with its Arctic currants. I haven’t been to a fish market in India in 12 years but one day I hope to go back to those markets and take photos. Who knows? It may not be the same anymore and just be a glass and steel structure but somehow I doubt it. Fishing is too much of an economic activity for the poor to be that.
Which, is why, I have always found fish curries to be earthy and grounding. In any country, meat and chicken are for those who can buy it, rear it or hunt it. But, fish? Well, anyone with a rod, a piece of string and proximity to a waterbody can get to it. And, the thing about curries is that because they are so loaded with flavor, literally any type of fish can be used. Like the brilliance of using cheeper cuts of meats in slow cooked dishes, the ignominy of an unknown, lackluster flavored fish can be enamored with a trifling of spices.
Late at night, when most of the city has finished their dinner, a secondary city seems to come alive — in the homes of the domestics, the road side shops serving laborers and late night office workers. Yes, these are not of the genteel middle classes but of the lower orders but there is an honesty about this life that is very fascinating. When the sun is well below the horizon and the street lamps are lit, several shops come to life, by railway tracts, bus stations, alleys near bigger restaurants — anywhere where the blue collar class can stumble upon them on their way home. No, these are not the nefarious ones that sell backyard arrack and questionable tobacco. These are the ones that are flamboyant in their aromas, assaulting the senses with blatancy and one that leaves you with a heady attraction. The food here is bold, pungent and redolent with warmth of home-like cooking.
For me, the fish curries from these little tucked away vendors is perhaps the most memorable of all, combined with the sticky flavors of fish with the pungent curries they are cooked in. As much as you may think, they are probably unhealthy, they are least likely to be (as long the water used is good). Because, the food is always prepared fresh and consumed the same day, since they lack the storage facilities of refrigeration. Yet, the thing that makes it all worth it for me, is that in each bite you can taste that parallel economy, one that most of us, during the day, do not notice or give a second thought. But in that bowl, you can taste, the sweat, hopes, struggles and life of the working class!
If you are in tropical Asia, India, Philippines, Thailand, HK, Singapore, anywhere, help yourself to fish curry by the sea, on the streets. It is an experience not to missed, and one, I assure you, will be treasured if you love food or culture!
For the recipe, click here.
Originally published at www.forkspoonnknife.com on May 5, 2015.