I am a Bengali, genetically engineered to like fish. Many of you may not know this but fish is not merely another food item in a Bengali household…it is symbolic of the Bengali culture, an almost compelling, if somewhat misleading, part of their identity. It is an intrinsic part of our festivals and celebrations and a traditional Bengali Hindu wedding is incomplete without a plump and decorated fish, that typically signifies prosperity and good luck (more on this can be found here).
As I was saying…I love to eat fish. Most Bengalis that I have met till now, and trust me that is a big number, love fish while outliers are also to be found (I have some in my family). Growing up fish was an everyday food item and while the Rui/Katla (belonging to the Carp family) were/are the most common for daily consumption, the variety that a good Bengali fish market offers is impressive, to say the least. And those also find their way into a Bengali household easily. The younger generation today has a tricky relationship with fish, I am beginning to think. While they love to eat it, they have neither the time to go to the fish market to buy fresh fish nor the time to cook. The necessary skill is also lacking. The passionate love affair is probably losing a bit of the steam.
In this land far away from the fresh Rui, Koi, Topshey, Pabda (the list can go on), we have to settle for the frozen few that make the trip to this other side of the world. So we alter our taste buds and develop a liking for the salmons, cods and tilapias (that is so different from its namesake found in India). And we also apply our recipes that involve mustard and chili paste, cumin and turmeric, ginger and tomato to these and try to get a taste of home. It’s a ‘far fetched’ taste. So we mostly stick to the grilled and baked versions. But we are often tempted to take out our mothers’ recipe note copy to find a recipe that could be altered to fit the fish in the freezer or try to make a recipe from memory, those that have stayed with us even after a good ten- fifteen years.
One such recipe is what I wanted to share with you today. I somehow remember many tiny details about the day I first had this, which was a good nineteen years ago, at my aunt’s place on the occasion of Bhaiphonta (a Bengali festival that celebrates the bond and love between brothers and sisters). I was twenty years old at that time and was just discovering my love for the saree. It was a special day, a day that we always celebrated with cousins and aunts on my Ma’s side and that day too, many moons ago we spent the day exactly like that, eating and being silly and making memories. Someone had gifted me a beautiful sea green saree that was hand painted and had Jamini Roy ( a celebrated Indian painter) prints all over. Of course I was wearing that.
My Ma’s elder sister had made something she called ‘Tom Fish” (a short for Tomato Fish which probably meant fish in tomato gravy). It was simple and yet so delicious that I still fondly remember it and cook it from time to time. Her sister-in-law had shared the recipe with her, having learnt it from a neighbor. And I share that with you today. Isn’t it somewhat fascinating how food from around the world, even the ones that are cooked by our mothers and aunts and grandmothers, that do not find place in the recipe books and websites, find a way to reach our kitchens…we have to be willing to look.
‘Tom Fish’ (As my aunt calls it. I wonder what other names this simple recipe may have garnered for itself !)
I usually use tilapia fillets for this…any white fish pieces would do probably.
I cut the fillets (about 4 in total) in about 2-3 inches (you can make cubes or rectangular pieces…doesn’t really matter). Pat them with some salt and turmeric and a gentle drizzle of mustard oil (or vegetable oil) and let rest for about 10-15 mins. Back home, most recipes call for the fish pieces to be sort of deep fried in oil and I do so here as well when in the mood. But I also shallow fry them and have even put them in the oven for baking while I have gotten started with the gravy. The latter also saves the apartment from smelling of fish…a big thing to think about when you are renting!
Heat a wok or a pan with a round-ish bottom and pour in about a teaspoon of mustard oil or vegetable oil. Once heated, temper the oil with some black mustard seeds (quarter teaspoon), one dried red chili and give it a quick stir. Add a handful of curry leaves… I am a huge fan of these and I always add about 8-10 at least. You can always take them out before serving…these are not eaten usually. Add some grated or very finely chopped ginger and once the kitchen is filled with the aroma of the curry leaves and that ginger, add about 2 tablespoons of crushed tomatoes (from the jar or use fresh ones, whichever you have handy!) Give the whole thing a good but gentle stir and once the tomato is cooked, add turmeric, salt and a bit of sugar. Cook for a few more minutes, adding little water to prevent the gravy from becoming too thick. Once the desired consistency is achieved, which should be neither too runny nor too thick, I add the baked /fried fish pieces to that and let it simmer for a couple of more minutes till the gravy seeps into the fish. If you want some more heat, slice a couple of green chilies (I do this) and add to the gravy, when it is simmering, towards the end. Steaming hot rice is what we gobble this up with.
An amazing tool that helps us reconnect with our roots, with forgotten tales, with people who have gradually disappeared from our focus, food is powerful as is our association with it. Culture speaks through food. It evokes memories and transports us in time while helping us bring a sliver of that culture to our future generation.
We cook food from around the world in our home and we also keep rediscovering food from our childhood. Through that my husband and I occasionally stumble upon anecdotes that revive our memories from growing up in India and it is leaves us with a bittersweet taste. Sometimes it also happens that we cannot put those memories into words, but we know that there is a ‘something’ that connects the dots. We visit places in our minds that we have not been in a while now and rediscover moments that have shaped not only us but the city that we still fondly love, from its iconic buildings to the narrow alleys, each with its own story to share and hear.
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Sandy helps us revisit one of the most fundamental and pivotal relationships in our lives- the one that influences our childhood to a great extent and the one that continues to shape our growing up beyond and perhaps, always. Friendship provides refuge and a place to refuel. It is marked by everything from silly laughs and pinky promises to stimulating conversations and a trust deep enough to know that you are in a safe place. The unstoppable passage of time often meddles with regular meet ups and living in different corners of the world makes it harder. But friends find a way to be there- always have, always will. Don’t you agree?
I remember when we were in school, many of us did not have telephones in our homes and so summer vacations were always a bummer! A few of us wrote letters to each other and as I have written before, I still have letters that were written in the 90s by friends who are still just that precious and just that much thoughtful. We just don’t have as many pictures though! The memories are good enough.
This is a picture of me (right corner) and my three best friends taken on the last day of our high school. We were allowed to dress in traditional attire and that day was meant for fun and festivities, and lots of hugs and tears too. We have seen each other through times that have been anything but smooth and we have held each other and cried with each other and rolled on the floor laughing about the silliest of matters. Steeped in the affairs of our own little families and separated by oceans, today we hardly get the time for a daily catch up. Text messages and Google Hangout lets us share our current stories and take pointers on the kids that we are trying to raise. It makes me happy to think that for some of us our friendship began when we were as old as our little ones are now.
Friendship looks different today with social media playing such a huge part. Still, the basics of this relationship look the same and have the same beginning. My son often has his video calls with his friends where they play and share stories and read to each other, make puzzles and form their bonds, just in a different way more so now because of the current circumstances. But the seeds are being sown hopefully that will last for a long time.
And then we have our toys and the ‘stuffy family’ and of course, as cliched as it may sound, books and music to keep us company and be our friends. Change of time hopefully will never mar this .
For now, they seem to be each others best friends and while neither has any idea of what that means, they sure have their own little world- one that they are learning to share and get into mischief in! The brother understands what the little sister wants when she says things that I too am unable to comprehend. Their own little world has just started taking shape and I can’t wait to see what that evolves into!
Like the rain that smells just as good as it feels after the stifling heat, like the taste that our favorite dessert leaves us with in our hearts and like the groove that our favorite song unknowingly puts us into, friendship influences our essence. It does not require anything external to stay put. Thanks Sandy, this brought back so many memories:)
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Growing up my favorite color used to be nothing. I always got very confused when friends asked about it as I actually liked all the colors with the exception of brown. And the fact that I did not have a favorite color was confusing for my friends in turn! I figured that I needed to choose a color and stick with that to lessen the eyebrow raising ‘what do you mean you don’t have a favorite color’…I chose black. What was yours?
Red came in much later. Rather, it found me recently and I can tell that it is here to stay. I was reading about this enigmatic color that symbolizes romance and passion while also being symbolic of rage and malice and it made for some interesting read for sure. I feel I am slowly falling in love with this color. I have been looking around for red things to photograph and while I do not have the perfect red photos yet, I have some that are helping me see the beauty and power of the color.
Fiery or sublime, red is beautiful. But it is so when it invokes power and passion; it is vicious when it is painted with anger and hatred. Let’s choose the red wisely.
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I am yet to take photos in the macro mode but I absolutely love seeing such images… the details are simply gorgeous. Last week Amanda invited us to examine our photos a bit closely and I found these from my archive, some more recent than the others!
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If only there were a magical place we could send all our worries to from where they would never come back to haunt us, to take away our peace or to toy with our very existence! But such a place does not exist. What does exist is our resilience and humanity, hopefully. The latter being the factor that determines if we move forward not only as a civilization but as a species. This year has been a test for all and now that we are more than half way through and into the gorgeous days of summer , I can’t help but wonder if we have been able to look past the inconvenience that it has brought the ‘me and mine’ to feel for the ‘us’ that the me and mine are part of. The eternal optimist in me would like to think positively:)
Growing up, summer looked a little different from what it does today. School would be off for just about a month and there would always be a lot of ‘holiday homework’ that had to be done. Somehow, we could only get to that when the holiday was almost about to be over and what a scramble that would be! Visits from cousins , ice creams and the gorgeous mangoes were the staple of every summer. Some years we would take a trip to the mountains in the northern part of the country and those 2 weeks would have their own charm. There was something else that was special about summer vacation- story books and all the extra time that could be spent with them. And if sometimes the book happened to be new, I would spend a good number of days just smelling the pages, carefully turning those lest the smell went away. The crisp pages and that almost heady aroma had their own mesmerizing effect on me and it felt as if I could spend days cocooned in the comfort that books always wrap us in. For brief moments of time, they would take me beyond the sweltering summer days into an imaginary or real world that would engage the mind with the fleeting ‘what ifs’ .
I recently read somewhere that summertime is together time and I loved it. It so is together time since the kids are home and while it can sometimes feel crazy, it is also an amazing time to explore and add pages to the pocketbook of our memories This year however, this phase of summer where kids are home, started long back in early spring under dire circumstances and will likely continue well into the next summer months. Gorgeous days are passing us by and while many here in the US have flouted rules and crowded the beaches and pool sides we have stayed home, as have many, venturing out only in the neighborhood.
The simple joys of summer are indeed escaping us this year and it is particularly difficult for the little ones. Sand castles and picnics on the beach, play dates with friends, the animals at the zoo and at the farm, road trips, barbecue parties are all missing (as are hassle free trips to the grocery store but let’s not go there!) Near where we live, every summer there is a wonderful week long street food festival along with music by local bands and it’s an amazing time for all to come together as a community. Those were canceled, as were celebrations around July 4th. Everything is on hold and while this is a temporary pause, the future, at times, seems uncertain at this point.
While going through some of our summer pics from previous years amidst all that is not happening, I found peace and happiness in what has happened. What we have been able to do together as a family and in the memories that we have made. This year may have been different but I am hopeful that when the next summer comes, we would all have healed a little, and become a little wiser and a little more compassionate. The neighborhood parks would no longer have the yellow tapes around them anymore and going to the beach would be okay. As would kids running around in the sprinklers and playing tag. Families would be all together on their picnic mats and whatever they were bickering about would be forgotten as the sparkling fireworks would light up the warm summer night.
Flip flops and sunglasses have not been used that much, neither have hugs. An air of caution looms large and that dampens the spirit of summer. But flowers bloom and rainbows appear. We sing and have dance parties. We continue with the new patterns that have been woven to make the most of this quarantined life. But adventures await and we cannot lose hope. Stay well, you all.
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“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”
― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
This was posted for Sandy’s Friendly Friday Challenge!
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