I can travel for miles to buy fish, labor for hours to scale fish and feel like a magician while cooking fish. Yes, you got it right I am a Bengali. I shamelessly admit that the sight of my freezer suffocating with a variety of fish, has the same effect on me as a spa therapy has on a stressed out soul. The assurance it lends, that I can have a meal of rice accompanied by fish whenever I please, makes my day.
As a child I remember accompanying my father to the fish market every Sunday. The fishy smell, the glittering fish scale strewn alleys and the “50 Rs/kg” cries of the fishmongers still linger on my mind. To my surprise I found myself shopping for fish in malls, all packed and ready to hit the scorching oil, after I moved to Bangalore. Now in the US, a Bangladeshi store called Foodland, located in Cambridge, satiates my love for fish. Once a month I coax my husband into driving me 30 miles each way in return of the promise to cook him his favorite doi maach (fish in yogurt curry).
The fish haven located at the basement of the store is lined with large, once white freezers crammed with the prize. Once I pick my fish, big enough to last a month, the man behind the counter cuts the fish into precise pieces with an electric knife. During the long drive back home I usually contemplate about different fish curry recipes to match up to the month long cooking marathon.
The daunting scaling process begins once I reach home, with me bent over the kitchen sink armed with a quarter (25cent coin) as my scaling gadget. Cries of my husband voicing his disbelief as to how I can labor for hours over a fish fades in the background as memories of fishmongers scaling their catch with fifty paisa coins rush in my mind, lighting up my face with a smile.
Back at home, in Kolkata, having fish for lunch and dinner, is a ritual, unless some near or dear ones happen to pass away. Then you are expected to go into mourning, marked by the beginning of a gruelling eleven-day-long vegetarian diet, I believe meant to reassure the departed that you still care. I remember one such instance. It was a Sunday, my father returned from the bazaar bragging about his catch, Pabda maach. My mom knew this called for pabda maacher kalo jeera jhol (a light fish curry prepared with kalonji seeds) for lunch.
We sat down for lunch and my sister stooped over the bowl of fish curry to get the largest piece before I could reach for it when the dining room resounded with that ominous telephone call. It was my Aunt informing us about the demise of my father’s distant octogenarian uncle. My sister and I had never seen this grandfather of ours. She looked at me helplessly and at the fish for one last time. We knew right away how dearly we would miss the fish curry and braced ourselves to brave the 11-day ordeal. We secretly envied and cursed our maid who would get to pack our share home. The fish preparation was promptly replaced with dal (lentil soup) and alu bhaja (fried potatoes). My father returned to the table with a sigh. Till date I wonder whether the sigh was really meant for his long forgotten uncle!