Thanks for all the fish
So it’s back! Masterchef Australia, I mean. Which means, once again, that I no longer have a social life. (Not that I had much of one to start with anyway. These days, my idea of the best kind of nightlife involves a nice long bath, a comfortable nightie, a detective novel and takeaway Chinese or a sandwich of some kind. That’s perfect.)
Usually, I’m bored by the first few episodes of Masterchef, when they select the top 50 and then prune it down to the top 24. You don’t know anything about the participants, their back stories; there are so many people, you can’t figure out who you want to back and who not. I’m not interested in cooking (just eating), so for me, the joy of this show is the people.
But this time, I’m enjoying even the first few episodes. And I particularly liked the one on Tuesday, in which the challenge was to fillet a salmon and cook it. Somehow, it took me back to my childhood.
I’ve never filleted a fish in my life and if I had to, I’m sure I’d do a dreadful job. But when I was a kid, I often wanted to do it.
That was because, every Sunday, I’d go provision shopping with my dad to New Market, with a long list of groceries, veggies, meats and sea food (though it was river food) meant to last my enormous family of seven a week.
We’d start with the fish market, a vast, high roofed, echoing space filled with stone ‘tables’ where all the separate vendors displayed and cut their fish. The floor was wet and slithery, littered with scales and fish scraps so you had to walk very carefully or you’d slip, and it was unbelievably noisy.
We had our own regular fish man, and he’d make it a point to show me the various kinds of fish and explain how to identify them. I was never able to figure them out – except for pomfret which had a distinctive shape – but he was never disheartened.
And once we decided what we wanted, he’d start scaling and cutting up the fish the way we wanted it.
I was fascinated by the scaling, the speed at which the knife worked and the scales flew off. I always wanted to try it, but I was a kid and those knives were sharp. I wasn’t allowed to even touch the handle.
And watching the fish being cut was most exciting. The angles at which the various knives were held to cut the fish into chunks for curries and slices for pan frying and thin fillets for fried fish with breadcrumbs, the way the skin came off so smoothly (it seemed), I was fascinated.
Watching Matt Moran demonstrate the art of filleting fish on Tuesday night brought all that back to me.
As I relived the Sunday morning shopping tour with my dad in my head – moving on from New Market’s fish hall to the fruit and veg lines, being given grapes and oranges and bananas and peas and beans and florets of cauliflower to taste while my did did the buying, walking on to our regular pork shop behind The Grand Hotel, where the mince for the sausages we bought was custom mixed for the various tastes of various members of my family and then stuffed into their casings and I’d get a pat on the head and an extra slice of ham for my sandwich tomorrow – it seemed like a dream world, or one you’d only read about in an ancient, battered children’s book.
I’m sure all of you everywhere have your own childhood memories of provision shopping, but I think mine are the most magic.