An invitation to stay with a close friend in India came just as I was planning a research trip to the subcontinent for my cookbook Seafood Sensation. I jumped at the chance. Jay is an accomplished cook and has a well-orchestrated household of cooks, gardeners and chauffeurs; it would be terrific to have her on hand to advise me.
Our letters swished back and forth – Jay’s missives crammed with details of everything from Indian markets to must-visit restaurants. Jay enthused about the seafood in Delhi, Calcutta, Kerala and Goa, and I felt rather alarmed: India is huge! It has many cultures and religions, all of which have impacted on food with an added overlay of caste taboos, often unspoken but clearly understood in an Indian diaspora. And Delhi? Well, Delhi is a landlocked city with its share of memorable Mogul food but – as far as I could tell – it was not renowned for its fish. 'I know Delhi is far from the sea, but trust me," came Jay’s insistent response. So I kept silent, prepared for surprises.
On arrival in Chennai, I was collected from the airport and whisked to Jay’s place to find she was hosting a lunch with friends in my honour. Clearly, the idea was for me to jump in at the deep end without warning.
Each of the impeccably dressed and bejewelled ladies had brought their favourite dishes for me to try. In my jet-lagged state, I shot a dazed look at Jay. She disappeared and, as the table was being set, shoved a glass of something green into my hand with an unspoken nod. Having lived all my life with the sublime aromatics of pandan, I didn’t baulk at being served a green liquid and just gulped it down, tasting the bitter goodness of gotu kola (Asiatic pennywort), which, I was told, was a cure for jet lag. Now awake and bright-eyed, I was ready for anything.
Dishes were brought to a table that seemed to sag as vases and glasses were removed to make room for yet more platters; some labelled with the recipe title in its regional context and others so perfumed that I had to bend down to breathe in the aromas, mentally trying to discern the spices used in each dish.
There was an amazing spectacle of seafood. There were fish raans (spiced baked fish), prawn pakoras (deep-fried fritters), Mogul fish kurmas (regional variation of korma), a spicy kalia (fish curry) from Calcutta, a molee (fish in coconut milk) from Kerala, and an interesting dish of prawns stuffed into bitter melon, which seemed to have East Asian beginnings. As well as its distinct aroma of miso, the prawn and melon dish was prepared using a Chinese method and was made by a Nepalese cook. China was just across the Himalayas and food does cross borders; it was evidence of how India’s rich, ancient culinary heritage has evolved. I had noted the similarities between southern Thai and northern Malaysian food previously. Nevertheless, seeing evidence of this in India still impressed me.
I also tried a fishcake with elements of dhal and a mysterious herb, which turned out to be basil, grown in Lahore. Flavours can change dramatically, according to the soil conditions, which is also what makes regional food so unique.
I was humbled by the generosity of these women who had presented a part of their kitchen repertoire to me – a perfect stranger. They were already part of my book before I had embarked on my journey. The women’s combined cooking experience was invaluable and – desperate not to lose the moment – I tasted and took notes in a hurried scrawl. I also grabbed my camera and photographed each dish with its cook so, when I returned to my notes, I could categorise everything, refresh my tastebuds or beg for a recipe.
The fish raan was the most intriguing dish. I had often cooked lamb raan, marinating a leg of lamb overnight with cardamom and cloves, and a paste made from ground ginger, green chillies, cumin, yoghurt and lemon juice. The leg would then be coated with a sticky paste made from more yoghurt, almond meal, honey and some saffron for colouring, and then it was roasted until its juices ran clear, not pink – just as Indians like it.
But raan with fish? I sliced off a piece and tasted it, conscious that at least a dozen eyes were on me. Nervously, I composed my face as my tongue made contact with the fish. Genuinely surprised, I took a breath. Of course! Instead of cumin, fenugreek powder had been used in the yoghurt and, to balance the dish, two Indian spices, anardana and amchur (pomegranate and green mango powders) gave the almond breastplate baked on the fish a refreshing sweet-and-sour taste.
The fish molee – made with tender whiting – was layered with different spices that were just at the tip of my taste memory and masked by the rice flavours of coconut milk. I was delighted to discuss its origins: the coconut sauce simmered with onions, turmeric and mild green chillies was from Kerala, but what was that other flavour? Ah, I had missed feni – the innocuous, clear liquor distilled from the cashew fruit in Goa that had just given my heart a kickstart.
There was also another dish with mussels removed from their shells and encased in a fresh coconut and rice flour paste, which was steamed for a few moments, and then fried. The mussels turned out surprisingly plump, juicy and tasting of the sea.
I could have returned from my trip armed simply with the recipes I had collected that afternoon. To scour the west and the Ganges Delta for fish dishes had been my aim, and – although I was committed to the plan – the temptation to stay in the south was enticing.
'What about crab?" I asked one morning. Immediately, Jay’s chef, Vellasamy, proceeded to cook the most amazing Chettinad crab dish in a massive wok set over coals using fennel seeds and, among other ingredients, a tablespoonful of white poppy seeds. It was the most elegant-tasting crab recipe and I still salivate over it to this day.
After a week of meetings with chefs, I asked Jay – as a final favour – if I could be taken to a nearby beach where a small group of local fishermen brought in their daily catch at sunset.
There were sandy dunes above the beach where Jay’s driver parked, as an untidy flotilla of tiny boats headed towards the shore. I was so excited that I ran down shoeless to photograph the activity: boats being noisily dragged ashore; men gutting and sorting their catch; wives waiting to load the catch in bamboo baskets; and little children clamouring for dinner.
A short distance away, one of the women had started to cook dinner over a campfire. I watched her smear a paste of tamarind, chilli and salt on some small yellowtail fish and I drooled hungrily as the fish sizzled and spat. I drew closer, aiming to take a photo. Sensing my interest, the woman looked up and beckoned. With true Asian hospitality, she held out a piece of fish in some newspaper. I took it and sat down on the sand with the kids, enjoying the fish and the camaraderie. No words were spoken: who needs words with food?
Suddenly, behind me, with an angry squeal of tyres and a revving engine, I heard a car go into a maddening reverse and then drive off. I stood up and looked around: Jay’s driver had disappeared. I was alone, with no way of finding my way back. I waited for about an hour and, just as abruptly, with a flurry of wheels flinging sand in disgust, the car returned, screeching to a standstill.
I said goodbye to my newfound friends and pondered my predicament. I had clearly overstepped some caste law. Punished by the driver’s silence, I sat contrite as I was driven back – with little ceremony – to Jay’s home.
Jay confirmed my suspicions: I had done the unthinkable. I had eaten with fisherfolk – an unpardonable offence in caste-locked India. Although my hosts did not mind, the driver – himself a member of a lower caste – had shown displeasure on behalf of his employer.
I later learned that yellowtail is a bait fish and only eaten by the poor, while Indians of a higher caste prefer pomfret, mackerel or silver threadfin. It was vastly different in Goa, but that is another story.