Thursday, September 18, 2008


To find a Bengali, one just has to find the nearest fish-market. The fish-stalls, or the non-veg section of supermarkets selling fish, are converging points for Bengalis. You can identify them (the Bengalis, that is) by the over-loud debating voices, just like you can identify the fish-stall by the smell (so dear to us, so detested by non-fish-lovers).

A Bengali without fish is like a fish without water. It is essential to his innate sense of well-being. The intricate springs and coils of the fabled Bengali brain run smoothly only when they are adquately fish-oiled (Omega 3 and all that are very good, but it has to be blended with pure mustard oil).

Bengalis will congregate over fish and debate endlessly on the virtues of rui over katla, peti (oilier portions from around the stomach) over gada (bonier portions from the back of the fish), galda over bagda (lobsters over tiger-prawns), anything over anything-else. The fish-sellers and their assistants (who are also, often, Bengali) chip in with their bits of advice, usually supporting the Bengali with the heavier wallet.

But there are two immutable, uncontestable truths :
1. The sweet Bengali river-fish is the only edible fish in whole wide world (a grudging exception is made for pomfret, because the less-bony easily-fry-able fish is an inexplicable favourite with children). Any Bengali worth his mustard oil will turn up his nose at the salty sea-fish like bangda (found in shiny silver abundance in Mumbai) as an inferior sub-genre, not fit to be called fish.
2. Hilsa is the KING (or to be politically-correct, the QUEEN) of fishes. And all bespectacled-Bengalis will glare you down if you dare to suggest otherwise.

Other people are unperturbed by their choice of fish. My maid (who is from Maharashtra) happily cooks surmai/halwa/anything else with the same onion-garlic-chilli-coconut-tomato-coriander masala combination. But we Bengalis are thrown into a tizzy by our choice of fish. The other day I was extremely amused to overhear a phone conversation where the hapless husband was getting severely scolded by his wife because he had purchased rui when she had apparently made a mustard-coconut paste ready to cook prawns. Of course, rui with this same paste would be a blasphemously-unBengali concoction. So the poor husband was summarily ordered to buy some degenerate frozen shrimps to salvage the masala, and a tub of yogurt to grace the rui-curry.

I am a shame on bona fide Bengalis, I guess. I love fish, but am completely undiscriminating when it comes to choosing between betki and rawas, bombil and pabda. I don't even care if the oil is mustard or sunflower. As long it is fish, I love it. More of a Piscean and less of a Bengali, I guess.


Mystic Margarita said...

In that case, I am a 'Bangalir kolonko' - coz I don't eat fish! Cook it for a fish-loving Bong huby though :) - but only filets which I usually bake or just shallow fry a bit!

sukku said...

wow...there is a lot learn from this fishy blog...I love fish...and my fav is Sears and White Pomfret. Sears fried and curry is just fine and Pomfret has to be steamed Teo-chew style...

Bon Appetit

The Scatterbrain said...

I've seen the Bengali's love for fish in my friends from college. Fish is even a part of your marriage rites - if i am not mistaken!

People of Kerala too are insanely crazy about fish. But, me being a non-resident-malayali all my life, have never bought fish!! (some of my friends think this is close to sacrilege!) Any fish I've cooked so far has been bought, cleaned, cut amd marinated by the sweetest mother-in-law!!!

Am i spoiled or what!

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Hi MM,

That's what the first world does to you, I guess. Makes you forget our good ole third world jhol!

Hi Sukku,

You'd be totally welcome in Kolkata...but with a lecture on river fish vs. sea fish.

Hi scatterbrain,

You are a lucky girl. But since I've become a non-resident Bong, even my ma-in-law goes to great lengths to cook various types of fishy dishes when we go on our annual fortnightly visit. And yes, new brides are given a huge raw fish to hold when they enter their in-law's house after marriage, because their expertise in holding the fish indicates their expertise in managing the household (or some such).

sukku said...

well...I seem to like sea water fish....or in a chinese restaurant..."the fish that was swimming in the tank a few minutes ago"...which I guess would qualify for fresh water fish...but the bottom line is...a fish is a fish...and I cannot forget the fish curry I had in Mumbai...fresh Pomfret...with that black berry they use to make it sour...and the curry was excellent...

Mystic Margarita said...

No, no Sucharita - nothing to do with first or third worlds. Never ate fish in Kolkata either. In fact, ever since I was too big for mom to force me into eating fish, I stopped...and that would be around 12 years of age!

Mystic Margarita said...

Thou hast been tagged! :)

Nancy said...

Fish baked in foil is my husband's specialty, and a treat for me when I get home from work and find dinner ready!

I hope you don't mind if I "tag" you. It got started at

1. Where were you 10 years ago?
2. What's on your to-do list today?
3. What would you do if you were a billionaire?
4. Name five places you've lived.
5. Name three bad habits of yours.
6. What's your favorite snack?
7. Who will you tag next?

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks MM and Nancy for the tags. I love doing Q-and-A tags.

Piscean Angel said...

Oh yeah (me & hubby) r quite indiscriminating abt which fish to eat too. Hubby more so than me , i must admit. Actually, fried Surma is a personal fave of mine. And when in bangalore, do as the locals do & eat sea-fish too ... that's our motto. As long as there's fish on the table, we r not complaining. :-D

Piscean Angel said...

A correction : the name of the fish is Surmai. Sorry for the typo.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Hi PA,

I love surmai too. Easy to clean, cook and eat, that's the best thing about it!