Friday, May 20, 2011


Studying is about balance, my parents have always told me. And with willing test subjects grandparents, I've been poking about in the kitchen a lot. Yesterday, I made this.

Try saying its Thai name out loud, just for kicks.

Gaeng Buat Fak Thawng (try saying that out loud), pumpkins in sweetened coconut milk. Simple, natural (I made mine with organic honey) and quintessentially Thai.

And today? Over lunch, my grandfather mentioned how someone had told him to eat rohu, a kind of carp, to cure the morning sneezies. "They sell fresh fish at an evening market five minutes away", he told me offhandedly (or as I prefer to think of it, wishfully), turned back to his meal, and noticed my eyes light up at the thought of frying fish instead of my brain cells. Of course I started to get ideas. "Can-I-cook-it-can-I-cook-it-can-I-cook-it?", I asked, with way too much enthusiasm.

"Uh oh", he said, "I shouldn't have said anything".

But hey, guess who looked like he enjoyed it most?

We feasted on magic-fish for almost an hour, the longest meal I've shared with my grandparents in months. Bony fish is the most flavourful, of course, and I'd forgotten just how satisfying slow eating is. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's start from the beginning.

Buying, the fish, oh god. That's a story. I wish I could show you pictures, but contrary to popular belief, I don't carry my camera everywhere. (Even though I sleep with it next to me often enough.) By the way, vegetarians and faint-of-heart, you can stop reading now, please. Ed: You should have stopped reading a while ago.

Back to the fish, though. I reckoned we were going to a proper evening fish market, but as is with most of the best things in this city, the 'market' turned out to be a single roadside stall. A family of fishmongers with about fifty fish in front of them, and fifty more flip-flapping in a water tank on the side. Can't get fresher than this, I thought to myself.

And did I mention the flies?

They. Were. Everywhere. The last thing you want to see on potential dinner, yes. But I shouldn't have been too surprised. Given that it's summer, given there were fish, and given that the fishmonging family had a mountain with ten years' worth of discarded fish scales and lord-knows-what behind them.

Yeah. Saddest thing ever. I suppose they get used to the smell, and the flies, and the flippy fish and twenty loud customers after a point, though.

Anyway. The woman at the scales was a seasoned profishessional. She was pulling fish out of the water with all the dexterity one can possibly acquire in ten years of selling fish. Tug on tail, slide fish onto forearm while mentally estimating weight, lay mid-section into basket gently, fish's still-glugging face poking out one end, and her tail-fin poking out the other, search customer's face for approving nod, if customer's face starts to wrinkle, lift fish by tail, plop back into the water, and repeat. God, what a tiring job. But boy, she made it look like magic.

We picked our fish and paid up, and I was all ready to go home swinging the bag of live, wriggly fish and all. Coo-whee. But I'd forgotten all about the man with the Nepalese military knife. He'd been sitting there very quietly the entire time, cleaning, scaling, hacking fish into bits. All without drawing very much attention to himself. Clearly, this was a man who didn't mind not being in the spotlight. (Quite a well-complemented couple, them.) Though I probably wouldn't call much attention to myself either if I were covered in scales and unidentifiable fish parts. But I'm diverging. He caught the fish deftly (what did I say about well-complemented?), and sidled it up to his knife. Do I want to watch this?, I wondered.

And before I could think, he'd sawed off one fin and the other, and was halfway through scaling poor, little fishie. Suffice to say, I felt much worse than terrible. For those of you who've ever lived in an Asian country, do you remember the feeling in your stomach the first time you went to a butcher shop? Well, I've been to more than one. And the stomach-tumbling doesn't really ever go away.

Even when you try to convince yourself that it's natural and cyclical and all that. But, what can you do?

Anyway, a couple hours, many mustard seeds and a whole lot of cumin, green chillies and tomatoes later, we had one very happy grandfather, one wary grandmother (she brought out the bananas, just in case someone swallowed a fishbone), and a satisfied amateur chef.

Fishy fingers? Use a lemon.

For those of you who are interested, this is how I cooked it: I washed the fish many, many times, rubbed it all over with turmeric (thus cleaning and disinfecting it) and let it sit in the fridge till I was ready to use it, about half an hour later. I wanted to salt it, so the flavour would permeate, but I didn't, since I was supposed to fry it later, and salt-induced osmosis would make it all dry and chewy.

I then put some mustard seeds and cumin into medium-heat oil till they began to pop and fill the kitchen with their gorgeous mustard-seed smell. Then, I added the minced onions (one big one for almost a kilo of cut fish), garlic, split green chillies and red chilli powder for flavour, lowered the heat, and waited forever for the onions to brown.

While I was waiting, I 'fried' the pieces of fish in another pan, with a little bit of oil and a whole lot more steaming, on medium heat. Just till they turned white and fell apart when you prodded them, but not so much that they got chewy. I kept these aside, still covered, when they were done.

Once the onions browned in the other pan, I threw in a whole bunch of finely diced tomatoes with some salt to make it cook faster and taste nicer, covered it, and let them cook till they became much redder and their skins began to peel off. You could use pureed tomatoes if you like.

Finally, I poured a whole bunch of water into the tomato sauce pan. I used about half a litre, because I wanted a lot of curry. (Apparently, the fact that the curry is too hot to eat makes your eyes and nose water so much that it fixes any sneezies you'll ever have. Mine wasn't barely hot enough.) Let it simmer, dunk the fish pieces in, plate up, and serve!

So why is this post called Balance? Well, Balance >> Scales >> Fish. So sue me.

Oh, and don't forget the bananas.


  1. Fish Markets are wonderful.

    So is eating Fish!

  2. Fish! I looooove fish! And fish markets to be honest. You're barely ten minutes away from a Gujarat Fisheries store though. :) Slightly cleaner. Slightly fewer flies. And a real store. With walls and stuff. Tell me next time you're making fish. You and me will go buy it. :)Ooh or INA. Fish markets make me happy. :P

  3. Rohu!This is the real fish-bony, scaly and small, with thin hair-like gill-rakers, that probably sieve the water it swims in, to feed itself; a variety for which fish knives and forks are redundant; a type that must only be nudged and fingered and needled in order to be demolished! I don’t remember D Pa ever getting his hands dirty so obsessively in curries in all of my twenty five years that I’ve known him. This must have been, for him, a delightful encounter with Rohu indeed!