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The sight and smell of fish make me happy!

 

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I walked into the bustling fish market armed with the quintessential striped thole (reusable nylon grocery bag). The fish scale strewn brick lane was glistening with a Bengali’s enthusiasm for fish.

The clock had 30 minutes to strike nine but the market was heaving with customers. They had resisted the temptation to laze around the house on a Sunday morning for their greater love of fish. Fish that will eventually end up on their lunch platter – fried and slathered in gravy.

Blood and guts everywhere. Severed fish heads. Gills, fins, roe and bloody scales. The smell hovering over both obnoxious and delectable. Delectable to my Bengali palate that will wither away sans fish.

Fishmongers lined both sides of the narrow lane. Seated on a concrete platform they flaunted their day’s catch, spread on fresh green banana leaves. The tarpaulin lined asbestos roof, held upright with bamboo props, provided shade. They were straining their voices to lure patrons. The sound both mellifluous and cacophonous.

“Bhalo bhetki hobe dada, niye jan,” assured one of the fishmongers.
( The bhetki [a freshwater fish] is real good brother, take it home.)

Rui, katla, ilish, bhetki, pabda, parshe, chitol, chingri, bata, khayra, magur — fish of varying shapes, sizes and tastes. A feast for the eyes and soul; never frozen, always fresh. Some dead and some merrily alive.

The fishmonger will swiftly scale and gut the fish for you. And if you fancy a special cut for your catch, he will readily cater to your taste. The whetted boti his paintbrush, the fish his canvas; enchanting customers with his dexterity.

[My Kolkata trip would have been incomplete without a visit to my neighborhood fish market.]

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Cooking Doi Maach for a chef

Cooking for a restaurateur/chef is intimidating. Especially so when you are enlisted with the task of introducing a dish to his palate.

I met with Pushpir Bhetia — the owner of the Indian restaurant called Guru, in Somerville — in February this year for an interview, as part of my research work on Sikh immigrants in Boston.

Apart from talking about the prime issue — Sikhs being target of hate crimes in the US especially after 9/11— we talked a lot about food.

During one such conversation, we talked about fish. When you are talking about food and fish isn’t mentioned, a Bengali might quickly lose interest. Bhetia knew this. He asked me what kind of specialty fish dishes Bengalis dish out when it comes to entertaining guests.

Doi Maach, I said. Fish cooked in a yogurt-based gravy.

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Pungent mustard oil is tempered with bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and red chilies and as soon as the warm spicy flavor hits the nose the creamy ginger-garlic-onion and tomato paste is introduced. Turmeric, cumin powder, salt and sugar goes in next and the mixture is cooked till the oil separates from the gravy. Half a cup of well beaten yogurt is then added. After cooking the mixture for a couple of minutes half-cup water is introduced to the gravy and once it comes to a boil the lightly fried pieces of rui are added. The mixture is then cooked till the desired gravy consistency is achieved. A sprinkle of garam masala and the dish is ready to be enjoyed with warm fluffy white rice.

Bhetia seemed intrigued by the recipe and I promised to bring him some doi maach once my semester was over.

My semester was over by the last week of April. I got busy doing nothing.

But yesterday I decided to act on my promise. I cooked doi maach but the whole cooking process was a bit intimidating, like I said. The thought that I was cooking for a chef kept badgering me.

Once the dish was ready I packed it carefully inside a container. When I arrived at the restaurant, Bhetia was busy cooking baingan bharta.

I handed over the doi maach to him along with the recipe. I was planning to leave but he asked me to wait, as he scooped out a spoonful of rice, from the rice cooker, on a plate.

“This is going to be my lunch today,” he said, as he opened the container I brought him.

It was like a nightmare come true; my paper was being graded right in front of me!

I stood in the kitchen as I watched him eat. It took him around ten minutes to finish the six pieces of fish that I had carefully nestled in the container for him.

“So, what’s the verdict?” I asked timidly.

Pointing towards the empty, gravy stained container he said, “Need I say more?”