Moving home means major upheaval in India. More so when the move is from one state to another. Beside the usual challenges one has to face, like packing and unpacking, finding an appropriate place for everything, setting up the kitchen from scratch, finding new schools, and new doctors and dentists and friends, there is one more important, basic necessity: acquiring a quick knowledge of the local language in order to feed one's family.
I mean, try finding the word for nutmeg in Chennai, red snapper in Cochin, lotus seeds in Calcutta, or bottle gourd in Chandigarh. You would have to be a walking Tower of Babel.
Many Indian cookbooks give a cursory nod in the direction of this problem by adding a glossary of ingredients in different languages at the end of the book. Most prove to be vastly inadequate, if not entirely misleading. And let me tell you from experience, a spice by any other name does not taste as sweet. In fact, it can be positively ghastly.
Supermarkets, where one can identify everything by sight, do not exist in many towns and cities. One has to depend on the small, but well stocked, general store, where everything is out of sight and will be produced if asked for by the right name. So this knowledge of the local name for ingredients becomes critical.
My biggest problem has been with fish. In the early days of my cooking years it was easy enough when I walked through the 5.a.m. catch at Sassoon Docks in Bombay, picking up a kilo or more of prawns from a mound here, and a couple of pomfret from another mound there. The fisherwomen selling the fish had no weighing scales, and it was all an approximate amount, with prices negotiated on the spot. They found it quite amusing to sell small quantities to me, being more used to the wholesale buyers who generally came each morning and bid for one fisherman's entire catch.
I did not always know the name of the fish, and learned about the taste and the way it could be cooked through sheer trial and error. Some years later we moved to London and I had no idea what to ask the fishmonger. A fish that tastes like pomfret? The closest thing to surmai (by then, already my favourite fish)? By the time I got to know my fish facts we were in Delhi or some other part of India, where the process began all over again.
A moveable feast is not as easy as it sounds.
For all those who have suffered from life on the move, or even for those who travel for pleasure and would like to know what to ask for, or what sea creature they are about to ingest, here is the first in a 10-part series of an illustrated glossary of some of the commercial fish of India.
I must begin with Bombay Duck, which, with its overbite, is possibly one of the most determinedly ugly fish ever seen. Commonly known as Bombil in Marathi and Oriya, Bamalohor and Nehare in Bengali, Bumla and Gulchi in Gujerati, Coco-mottah in Telegu,Vanharavasi in Tamil, it is also known by different names in other countries. Bumalo in Spain, Bumblim in Portugal, Bummalo in Germany, Tenaga-mizutengu in Japanese and Bombay Duck in most other European and Scandinavian countries.
This fish constitutes a major part of the total catch in India, and most of it comes from the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra, Gujerat and Saurashtra. Bombay Duck or Harpodon nehereus is also caught in substantial quantities in the Bengal estuaries and on the Andhra and Orissa coastlines in Masulipatnam and Jaffrabad. Some of it is sold fresh, but, as it is a very soft fish, it is susceptible to spoilage, so much of it is sun dried. A common sight in all fishing villages along the Maharashtrian coast are the ropes strung on bamboo poles where they are hung by the teeth. The familiar smell of drying fish follows you when walking on the beaches along the western coast.
Its somewhat misleading name is supposed to have come from the fact that the dried fish was carried, in the days of yore, by the Bombay Mail train and stank its way through the entire journey, gaining the train and its goods some notoriety. Dak being the Hindi word for Mail, Bombay Dak (i.e. Duck) became the name of the fish.
It is such a favourite amongst Maharashtrians that one well known Maharashtrian cricketer was named Bombay Duck for his seven test zeroes against Australia. Bombay duck is very popular among the CKP community. I am grateful to Deepa Chitre for the following recipe, which is a customary way to cook this fish.
8-10 fresh Bombil ( Bombay Duck (), cleaned and cut into 2 inch pieces,
6 medium size potatoes, preferably round in shape,
3 tablespoons garlic paste
1 tablespoons red chili powder,
1/2 tbsp haldi (turmeric)
1 tablespoon salt
5-6 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves,
4-5 chopped green chilies (to taste),
5 tbsp fresh coconut grated,
4-5 tbsp oil
Thoroughly wash the slices of Bombay Duck in running water. Clean and scrub the potatoes(they will be used with the skin).
Dry the fish and coat the slices with a mixture of garlic paste, chili powder, haldi and salt.
Cut the potatoes into thin slices. Coat with haldi, chili powder, salt, coriander leaves, green chilies and grated coconut.
Put together the potatoes and Bombay Duck, and let the mixture marinate for 1 hour.
Heat oil in a thick bottomed vessel , or kadhai. Add the potatoes and fish and let it all cook on a low flame. Initially toss the mixture (instead of stirring), to ensure that the oil spreads through the entire mixture. (The pieces of fish break very easily if stirred.)
Cover and cook till the potatoes are done. Staunchly resist the temptation to open the lid and stir.
While serving take care that the fish pieces do not break.
Serve hot. Do not reheat.
Next fish online:
Ref:Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2006.FishBase.
World Wide Web electronic publication.
www.fishbase.org, version (05/2006).