The divinity of dried fish

My brutally frank wife says it stinks. My in-laws are more polite. A wan smile and a firm “no thanks” is all I get when I offer the Sindhi part of my family that fragrant, crunchy coastal delicacy – sukat.

You know those iconic images of Mumbai you see in coffee table books: A wooden trawler and fishermen mending nets framed against fish strung out to dry on clothes lines? Those photos of shrimp being dried on pavements by fisherwomen in their colourful nine-yard saris?

Well, my family eats these fish. Sukat is one of three varieties of dried fish we consume. But it apparently engenders a feeling of faint disgust in anyone who hasn’t been brought up eating dried fish.

And so it came to be the other night in Mumbai that the unfamiliar-to-sukat eaters came to be firmly ranged against the lifetime sukat eaters. Even a mild, fruity South African white wine paired with the sukat didn’t help reduce the hostility at the table to god’s dried bounty.

“Can we please not keep it on the table?” the wife asked tartly to protests from the opposing side.

My niece Tara fools around with my precious packets of dried fish -- and indicates just what she thinks of them. Brat!

My niece Tara fools around with my precious packets of dried fish -- and indicates just what she thinks of them. Brat!

Even my pre-teen nieces – traitors – turned up their pretty noses at this old family delicacy. But that’s their Telugu DNA I guess. My college buddy (he has popped up on this blog previously under the name “Bong”, a Telugu boy who grew up in Calcutta; in real life a hotshot banker), is married to my sis, and it was at their breezy Napeansea Road flat that the sukat war unfolded.

Against: Wife. In laws. Aforementioned friend, and aforementioned daughters, and their grandfather.

For: Me. Sister. Aunt.

Eventually, an uneasy truce prevailed. The poor sukat was kept to one side of the table with the naysayers turning their faces away when they had reach over it to help themselves.

The dried-fish glossary

If you must understand my fascination for dried fish, you must first understand dried fish.

1. Sukat, which I’ve told you about, is dried shrimp; actually, smaller than shrimp, a variety locally called karandi. Rs 175/kg.

2. Soda, dried medium-sized prawns, the  Mercedes of the dried-fish world. Rs 700/kg.

3. Dried Bombil, the delicate fish called Bombay Duck, the fish of the fishing-village photo. Rs 175/kg.

Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

My aunt is the family supplier of dried fish, and she's stuffed her husband's booze-and-cold-drink fridge with packets of them. The aroma is rather strong, and my uncle is not particularly happy. (Photo by: Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

Now, you must get to know my aunt, Meena Mehta (if you’re wondering how a Guju loves dried fish, she’s originally a Deshmukh from Shivaji Park, Mumbai). She has variously served as my alternate mum-certainly in my teenage years when she knew things my mother did not-and is my lifetime dried-fish supplier.

I landed in Bombay this week, and I was about to call her to replenish my supply of sukat when she called in great excitment, saying she had just got fresh stocks. It’s fate. So, we both got excited together.

Meena Moushi (MM), as I call her, is my mum’s younger sister (and yes, they both love dried fish), and she can go into rhapsodies over sukat. She tells me how she loves eating soda-raw. Hmm, I’m not sure even I would go that far. “It is such a treasure,” sighs MM. But you see the effect dried-fish can have.

Many people would prefer to throw dried-fish in the trash, and indeed, that is where much of it ends up really. Cats pillage it as it lies out in the sun, and vast quantities are lost to other predators. Some of it is simply swept away.

MM has always warned me against buying dried-fish from any Bombay fishmonger at any local market. Now, I personally have eaten local-market dried fish, but she’s right-if you are finicky about cleanliness, it’s best to find a reliable supplier. My aunt’s supplier is one Ashok Chaudhary from the distant western suburb of Borivali, but he will deliver packets of dried fish anywhere in Bombay. Here’s his number: 9987924635.

As I’m writing this, my colleague, Shailesh Gaikwad (who is chief of the Hindustan Times‘ political bureau in Bombay) is waxing eloquent about the breakfast he often eats at his native town of Palghar in Thane district: rice bhakri (a handbeaten thick chapatti made of rice flour) with sukat or dried-bombil fry or sode with sliced onion.

In his area, this is originally a breakfast for farm labour, Shailesh explains. The healthy, filling bhakri with the delicious dried fish. Work starts early and those who work hard tend to skip lunch. What could be more apt: fish caught and dried by the sons and daughter of the sea fuelling the sons and daughters of the soil.

And now, to eat

Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

Dried fish and white wine. Yum! (Photo by: Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

The wonderful thing about dried fish – apart from its earthy, tangy flavour – is that it’s really very simple to make.

Maharashtrians love it so much, that they will even put it in breakfast poha (puffed rice).

All you need to remember is to soak it in water for 2-3 hours before cooking. This allows it to plump up. Do remember to drain the water.

The basic recipe is simplicity itself:

- Heat some oil.

- Throw in some smashed garlic, generous quantities.

- Fry onion till translucent. Remember to chop lots of onions-up to three for a standard 200 gm packet of sukat.

- Add haldi (turmeric) and lal mirchi (red chilli powder). Fry.

- Add kokum (see previous posts on this subject) or tamarind water. These give it the all-important tang.

- If you want to spice it up further, add a slit green chilly.

- Garnish with coriander.

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