Cooking Fish in Bengal
by Angshuman Das
I was born in Bengal,
but grew up in the heart of India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. As
a child growing up in a steel township where my father worked as an
engineer, my siblings and I had the opportunity to play in the yard,
for our house was on the first floor of the building. It was part of
a block that formed part of quarters provided by my fathers
employer, a steel plant that spewed red smoke into the sky.
While I played in the
garden, I could smell the smells that came from my mothers kitchen.
While I chased butterflies and dragonflies flitting from flower to flower,
I inhaled the smell of mustard seeds that went pop pop pop in hot oil
. I also smelled panch foron, the Bengali five-spice combination
of fennel, mustard, kalonji, fenugreek and cumin.
But, above all, I smelled
fish (no pun intended!). While I ran about the house to trap butterflies
fluttering among yellow cosmos, I smelled the smell of fish frying in
mustard oil. And, I heard the sizzle. I meandered into the kitchen and
hovered around my mother. As a boy, I hung on to her apron strings (well,
actually, sari), as it were.
I took to cooking as
a duck takes to water. As my mom cooked, I would putter in the kitchen,
looking for things to sprinkle in the kadai (a deep wok). Some things
I sprinkled into the chulha (an Indian stove). Among these things was
salt. The salt would pop and sputter in the fire, emitting blue sparks.
I got hooked to the crackle of cooking right then.
As fish would cook,
I would stir or flip it with khunti, or a steel spatula. I just loved
stirring anything! My mother cooked all kinds of stuff: fish, goat meat,
vegetables, egg and lentils. But fish was always a constant. Ours was
a truly Bengali home, and so fish formed a principal part of our cuisine.
My father bought fish
often. In the days before we had a car, I remember him riding a creaky
bicycle, crossing railroad tracks in the darkness of winter evenings,
and traveling several miles to buy fresh fish. I would sometimes ride
behind him on the pillion seat. He would buy mostly rui and katla, both
of the carp family, but also sometimes ilish and other fish, often whole
We had fish almost
every day. Two of the most frequent dishes that she cooked were macher
jhal (peppery fish) and macher tarkari (fish and vegetable curry).
HERE TO READ THE FULL VERSION.
Also by Anghuman:
American dessert a surprise in Indian summer
Mother falls for Mexican food
Angshuman has a beautifully
written blog that tells more about Bengal and its food. Please read
his blog: www.cookingincalcutta.blogspot.com
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