When he set out set out from the coast of West Bengal and traveled all the way till Gujarat, along India’s 7500-km long coastline Samanth Subramanian’s aim was simple: to examine how fish affects the lives, the culture and indeed the food of the country’s coastal regions. The result is nothing short of remarkable. Following Fish is a collection of essays as Samanth follows fish as a motif in a country that is predominantly vegetarian. Funny, insightful, educational and decidedly entertaining, Following Fish has won several awards including the Shakti Bhatt Prize for the first book. With kind permission from the publishers, Penguin Random House India, we bring you this excerpt of the Mangalore leg of Samanth’s journey and his search for the perfect Rawa Fry. Scroll below to read this fascinating account: Also Read - Watch | Mangalore Woman Risks Her Life, Climbs Down a Well to Rescue Stray Dog
Mangalore lies on a curve of land that descends from the Western Ghats to the sea, and it is deeply enamoured of its waters — the backwaters of the Netravati and Gurupura rivers, but also the coast, where waves wash up tiredly and rest a while before leaping on their return journey towards Arabia. In his book In an antique land, Amitav Ghosh describes the ‘great palm-fringed lagoon, lying tranquil under a quicksilver sky,’ joined to the ocean only by a narrow channel of water. Mangalore’s glorious stretches of sand were its first ports, inviting boats that could be beached safely. In the Middle Ages, to the Arabian traveler who had never left home before, it must have been an awesome sight: pristine sands, lavish vegetation, a rich entry into a vast new land. (ALSO READ How to reach Mangalore from Goa by road) Also Read - Shilpa Shetty Kundra Paints Friday Pink With Shamita Shetty-'Mother of Shettys' in 'Ethnic Mode'
On my way to Panambur Beach, Mahesh, my auto-rickshaw driver, happened to ask me where I was from. ‘Madras,’ I said. (I’ve never quite been able to call the city by its new name, even though it was renamed Chennai just one year after I began living there. I’ve often wondered at that inability. Either it is evidence of a buried conservative streak, or a liberal sense that scoffs at the inadequate rationale behind the change of the name. Or maybe it is simply the very flimsy conceit that a real, dyed-in-the-wool Madrasi would never call his city Chennai, and that I fancy my wool to be as dyed as they come.) Also Read - Air India Express Flight Veers Off Runway, All Passengers Safe
At any rate, I said: ‘Madras.’
‘Ah, Madras,’ Mahesh said, and drove peaceably along for another half kilometre. Then: ‘I’ve been there once, you know.’ By this time, I had been away from home for over two weeks, and I was beginning to miss it. I would have grabbed at any opportunity to talk about Madras.
‘Oh? When was this?’
‘Seven years ago,’ he replied.
Just a few hours before he arrived in the city, Mahesh explained, the chief minister at the time, J Jayalalithaa, had arrested the opposition leader, M Karunanidhi, in a dramatic nocturnal operation. Consequently, Karunanidhi’s party had organized a city-wide protest strike, and buses and local trains weren’t running.
‘The strike was beginning just as I got off the train,’ Mahesh said. ‘I had to finally take an auto-rickshaw all the way to my destination, Padi. It cost me Rs 120.’ After a minute, delightfully oblivious of all irony, he said: ‘These auto drivers always fleece you.’
Panambur Beach is a dozen kilometres north of Mangalore, just past a giant port that ships out, among other things, iron ore from the Kudremukh mines. A beach festival had concluded the previous day, and all its paraphernalia — balloon-shooting stalls, food stations, rusty little carousel rides, banners — still stood, unmanned and desolate in the setting sun, like a graveyard of amusement. To one side was a giant billboard that morbidly advertised the number of swimmers who had died at Panambur each year, thereby cautioning visitors to stay on the sands. It seemed to deter nobody; the beach was filled with swimmers towelling off, or still dripping, or emerging from the surf laughing and playfully flicking water at each other.
Mangalore’s open shoreline has been, in a way, the making of its particularly complex strain of cuisine. Already it is jostled, on either side, by two prominent cooking schools — the Malayali, to its south, and the Konkan, to its north. Then there is the food of its indigenous Bunt community and of the newly converted Christians who fled the Goan Inquisition when it began, in 1560, to suspect them of relapsing into their old faiths. Arab traders, settling in Mangalore as well as further down the Malabar Coast, brought their own culinary preferences — what has come to be called Moplah cuisine, with its meat-intensive biryanis and curries.
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Which of these distinctive worlds of cooking is responsible for the rawa fry, I am not entirely sure. In all probability, they melded together like genetically superior parents and produced this stunner of a dish. When I was lured away from my search for a once-lost love for the perfect fish curry, it was the rawa fry that seduced me — more often than not a ladyfish, or kane, coated with a patina of spice and a sheath of grainy semolina, and then fried into a golden-brown, crunchy segment of heaven.
I ate my first rawa fry at Mesha, an eatery commended highly, in my interrogations of Mangalorean friends, for its food that tasted of home. Appropriately then, Mesha resides in a small, old house near the New Chitra Theatre, so unobtrusive that, in the dark, feeling a little like Theseus in his labyrinth, I wandered down multiple wrong lanes before chancing accidentally upon the right one. In a string of unlit houses, Mesha’s tiny windows were the only ones resplendent with light. In the living room, floored with red oxide and roofed with fat rafters, there were two big tables and a narrow wooden bench that reminded me of school; just beyond was another room with another table and then the kitchen, clearly in my line of sight. I was the only customer there. Mesha’s staff had taken strategic positions of lethargy around the living room, all watching a cricket match with Kannada commentary on a diminutive television — a match that was so evidently of the grassroots, sub-junior variety that I was surprised it was even being televised.
The cricket can’t have been very gripping, because when I began to ask questions about my food, Mesha’s waiters clustered around me to provide helpful, but sometimes contradictory, answers. In a few seconds, they reached a consensus that the chutney accompanying the rawa fry was made of tomato and a little tamarind, but the debate raged longer over how the fish was prepared. One section of the house argued that the layer of spice contained a little egg and flour to bind it to the fish, while the other maintained that there was no egg or flour, and that it was just an ordinary mixture of spices.
Finally, one of the members of the second set disappeared into the kitchen, and in the absence of a quorum, the debate stalled momentarily and eyes started to drift back to the television. Two minutes later, our emissary returned, and in a remarkably bipartisan gesture, admitted that his party was wrong, and that egg and flour were both very much present. The bill was successfully passed. Then a businesslike gentleman, who must have been the chairman of the appropriations committee, cut in to ask if I wanted to order anything else.
I most definitely did. I asked for rice and a curry, which arrived in a shallow saucer, inflammatory with kokum but still somehow smooth with coconut, so deeply ruddy that I was certain it included tomatoes. (I was wrong. I’d learn later that Mangaloreans used tomatoes in chicken and mutton dishes, but rarely when they curried fish.) The parliament around me rattled off the other ingredients: ginger, long green chillies, garlic, onions, and fenugreek. The cut of fish, they admitted, was just of a cheap river fish, to inject the gravy with some sort of flavour.
I’m pretty sure they told me exactly what that fish was, but I was too busy eating to pay them my fullest attention. The fish in the rawa fry was what they called ‘murumeen’, a Malayalam word that refers to a type of snapper found in estuaries and seasonally in the lower reaches of rivers. Under its crust of rawa, it was soft and flaky, and hit with citrus from the lemon juice in the spice paste. If I did it right, I could peel off all three layers — the crunchy rawa, the tangy spice, the delicate fish — at the same time, to then assemble them in my mouth in an explosive fusion of textures and tastes. I picked the murumeen clean, spooned the last of the curry into my mouth, and sat back on my schoolroom bench to watch the rest of the cricket match. From outside, as the night deepened, we must have looked like a home-grown version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, sitting silently in this glowing old house that opened onto the resounding stillness of Mangalore.
All my frantic telephoning, on my first day in town, had fortuitously led me to Jaideep Shenoy, a correspondent of The Hindu in Mangalore, a stolid, laconic individual who was kind enough to take a few hours out of a working day to listen to the woes of a directionless eater. To Shenoy, I owe thanks on two counts: For accompanying me to Narayan’s, and for introducing me to Vasudev Boloor.
First, Narayan’s — a tiny restaurant, sitting inside an alley near Mangalore’s riverside wharf. The area itself is called Bunder, the word surviving intact from the Persian term for ‘port’ or, more poetically, ‘haven.’ (Shenoy’s guide to finding the restaurant is more prosaic: Go to the State Bank of India building, and then just ask for Narayan’s. ‘Anybody can tell you.’) At lunchtime, Narayan’s has a teeming ground floor and, via a narrow staircase, service on the first floor as well. Even from the doorway, I could see straight through the dining hall into the kitchen, where a stone grinder of Olympian proportions churned out vast quantities of fresh masala. Around tables that were already occupied, waiting patrons stood like tussocks of patient grass. Every so often, they were nudged to one side or the other with a murmured ‘Side-u, side-u’ from the owner of Narayan’s, who circulated with a big tray of fish fresh from the kitchen.
The specialty of Narayan’s, Shenoy told me, was its tawa-fried fish-fillets of seer and ladyfish or whole sardines and mackerel that have been fried on a flat, hot pan. But that is not quite accurate. Narayan’s specialty is the masala that is slapped onto that fried fish as it sizzles on the pan, the masala that I could see writhing out of the stone grinder, the masala that dusted the fish and otherwise aggregated in fried lumps on the circulating tray like spicy, red snowdrifts. Shyam Sunder, the owner, would solicitously bend over a table, and a customer would say, through a full mouth, ‘Kane’ perhaps or ‘Bangda,’ but then he would rake the tray with a sharp eye and point to those crisp nuggets of masala. ‘That too, please.’
Shyam Sunder’s father started Narayan’s sixty years ago, and it has since become an institution of tawa-fried delight in Mangalore. It passes with flying colours the popularly understood test for a good restaurant in Indiathat its food must be so good, and so cheap, that auto-rickshaw drivers and wealthy businessmen set aside their backgrounds to eat at the same table. On traditional steel thalis, waiters set down rice, pickle, a curried vegetable and some fish gravy, but nobody begins to eat until the almighty tray has blessed the plate with fish.
A tawa fry is rarely oily; instead, the crusted masala coats the fish fillet almost as if it were protecting the soft, white meat inside. The masala here was indescribably good. It was fried enough to suggest its immense potential as a meal all by itself, but it also lifted strong flavours out of the fish, like a coach goading verve out of a champion athlete. Shenoy didn’t bother with the rice and the vegetable at all, and I followed his example. After an initial piece of seer each, we commandeered the tray and lifted sardines (naturally oily, and very moist) and ladyfish (dry, but redeemed entirely by extra masala) onto our plates. Then, when we could eat no more, I stood next to the kitchen for a few minutes, simply sniffing at the frying masala on the tawa, deep-breathing fanatically, trying to fill my lungs with enough aroma to last the day.
Down the road from Narayan’s, a short walk made considerably longer by a full belly, was the wharf, crammed that afternoon with boats moored three rows deep, so thickly clustered that you could have walked on their decks from one end of the pier to the other. Across the boats, on the other side of the road, stood a row of small shops offering cold storage facilities, blocks of ice, fishmeal, engine oil and diesel. It was a sweltering afternoon, and particularly soupy and humid by the river; on many boats, the chopped ice being loaded into yellow plastic tubs started melting even before it could be lowered into the holds. In the mornings, fish were hauled out of those same holds and carted up to Mangalore’s main fish marketjust opposite the State Bank of India building, a few hundred metres away.
A helpful property of the human mind is that it can sense when something is out of place even before it deciphers what specifically is wrong with the picture. At the Mangalore wharf, I experienced the reverse effect; walking around with the dullness of mind that heat and satiation can often induce, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very right, very familiar, and yet out of place by virtue of that very familiarity. A few minutes passed before the mental tumblers fell into place, one by one: There was Tamil everywhere. The signboards of the shops were in the Tamil script; the boats prows’ had Tamil names painted on them, and the fishermen around me were hollering and cursing in Tamil. It felt like an unexpected homecoming, and I had to wait till the next day for Vasudev Boloor to explain it to me.
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Excerpted from Following Fish by Samanth Subramanian with kind permission from Penguin Random House India.