My introduction to fish was a happy one. I encountered it filleted, flaked, crumbed and fried as in Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers (are they still around?). Fish was delicious, Fish smelt good. Fish came in neat cardboard cartons out of a deep freeze. There was no connect between the aquarium and the meal on my plate.
Fast forward twenty years or so to when I stepped into the EI kitchen and discovered that fish was on the daily menu: every denizen of the deep was fair game. And so I was introduced, in quick succession, to Parkat (Sting ray), Mushi (Shark), Rawas (Salmon) Surmai (Mahaseer), Cupar (Eel or Tuna), Catfish, Ghol (Croaker), Bombil (Bombay Duck), Bhangda (Mackerel) and a whole lot more from the elite Pomfret to the guttersnipe Newtie. And how can one forget the shellfish? Prawns, shrimp, crabs, lobsters, oysters, clams were expensive in comparison but still added their presence to the meal. Each fish was allotted its own masala ranging from red, hot and sour to yellow, to green to reddish brown or brownish red – the ingredients were selected so as to enhance the particular flavour of the fish. Some fish were good for frying, others for stuffing, yet others for curry and some for baking and cutlets.
The fish was still delicious but there was one catch: it had to be fresh! Hello, Indian Fish Market.
My first visit was an education. There sat the women, buxom of build, laden with gold, hair slicked to a shine, baskets brimming with different kinds of piscatorial fare. A stone slab and a mean looking sickle completed the picture. There was a time honoured process involved in the purchase: examine the freshness of the fish by pressing the gills and checking the eyes, then haggle over the price, then sidestep the flying scales, fins and other incidental debris and avoid the ubiquitous cats. All this while being overpowered by the aroma of fresh, not so fresh and some quite stale fish and discarded entrails. It was also tough to avoid the puddles of ‘fish water’ and you undertook the homeward journey trying hard to avoid the accusatory glances of other commuters. Buying fish was not for the fainthearted. Neither was cleaning them – fish always seem to be caught while enjoying their own last meal!
I soon learned the useful trick of sending hubby to buy the fish. The fisher-women loved him and a few became his ‘fast friends’ hailing him as soon as he entered the market and producing for him the best of their stock. He would come home with a lot more than he bargained for, but since the fish was fresh and cleaned to perfection he was readily forgiven: we could look forward to a weekend table laden with the ocean’s bounty.
Those fisher-women with their lively banter and occasional invective are now long gone. The present generation is not so amiable in plying the trade and fish is sold at ‘fixed price only’, take it or leave it. The up-market housewife has also been responsible for the introduction of ready to cook ‘fresh’ fish delivered to the door. The trawler companies are finding it convenient to cut out the middle woman.
Fish is no longer on our daily menu, but when it does make its appearance, we remember the time when the trip from market to table could be quite an odyssey!