I had two nice pomfrets to cook last Sunday morning. What a lovely prospect for lunch. When the fish is as fresh as this, it is very easy to cook. I coated them with a paste of ginger, garlic, red chili powder, and salt. They need to sit in it for a bit; I gave it about fifteen minutes. Then, one by one they went into a non-stick pan where I’d heated a tiny bit of mustard oil. Three minutes for one side, two for the other, and it was done. Quick, and wonderful to eat after a fresh garden salad. A couple of months back I’d pickled some cherries in vinegar. That hint of sweetness in the vinegar makes a nice base for the salad dressing. We rounded off the meal with a sitafal (Annona squamosa).
I can never make fish without remembering this panel by Bill Watterson.
The Family has reached another of those troughs that living in lockdown presents. Fortunately, this time we are not experiencing it together. So I tried my best to help out in the kitchen. Since I no longer have the patience to read a recipe and follow it properly, I have to improvise. Fortunately, the pasta was easy. We had a jar of tomato sauce in our makeshift larder. When I opened it, the smell of herbs which floated out told me that it was better than my expectations. That made a twenty minute recipe. It takes ten minutes to boil enough water for the pasta. I chopped up some salami into little bits, and dunked it into the sauce. The Family made a fresh garden salad with a mint and lime dressing. She has started to char the capsicum before adding it to the salad. It brings out the flavour better. After the water boiled I added the fusilli. It takes about four minutes to make it to our taste. The rest is straightforward: drain, add the sauce and serve hot.
The water from boiling the pasta is something we could have reserved for a soup. Since it already has some dissolved wheat solids, it adds body. I must remember to save it the next time around.
The other part of a quick lunch is the fish. We had an absolutely fresh pomfret: firm to the touch, clear eyes, and (lucky us) full of roe. Apollo Bunder and Old Woman’s Island (separate until the early 19th century, when Colaba causeway was built to join then) were supposed to yield the best catch in the 18th century. Both names were anglicized; Apollo Bunder was a distortion of Palva bunder (Palva is the Koli word for the Bengali favourite Ilish) and Old Woman’s Island was a mishearing of Al Omani, after the deep sea Arab boats which docked there to take on fish. Unfortunately, today’s fishermen have to go much further to bring back our catch.
Such a fresh fish required very little preparation. I rubbed it with haldi and rock salt and left it for abput fifteen minutes. Then I heated a tiny bit of oil in a pan, just enough that the fish does not stick, and heated the fish for three minutes on one side, two on the other. The sweet pomfret requires nothing more. The roe was also perfectly done.
Sharad follows varsha. Sharad is often translated as autumn, but this is incorrect. It is still astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere when the season starts; the sun has yet to cross the equator on its southward trend. This is what the British called Indian summer. It is an uncomfortable time, since the monsoon has left the air full of moisture, and the weather warms up again. At this time the weather in the Himalayas is turbulent, there are dramatic cloudbursts and floods, and passes are closed. But also this is a time when nature reawakens in the plains, with warmth and water in plenty. On the coast the monsoon storms have passed, the time of the spawning of sea life is over, and traditional fishermen take their nets out to sea in newly painted boats. The featured photo was taken in Goa.
On land, I would scour the countryside in this season with my camera for wildflowers and insects. This photo of a chocolate pansy butterfly (Junonia iphita) was taken in the comfort of a garden. Even here photographing insects involved keeping a steady hand on the camera if a mosquito bit it just as you were about to release the shutter. When you look around you, it is clear that sharad is not autumn. Nature is bursting into renewed life. The fruits of this season are specially sweet and flavourful, the late medieval imports of chikoo (Manilkara zapota, also called sapodilla, or sapota), sitaphal (Annona squamosa, known elsewhere as sugar apple), and Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, which has no local name although it is so widespread). I love these fruits just by themselves, or in jams and ice creams, or in rum based drinks.
But most of all, this is the season of festivals. It starts with the Ganapati festival, and culminates with the Navaratri, or Durga puja. There is an almost continuous stream of festivals from Ganapati to Christmas. It is a part of the year when your resolve is badly needed. The weather is uncomfortable, and you are tempted to forgo the daily exercise that had almost come to a halt in varsha. And now there’s the tempting food, from the wonderful fresh catch of pomfret (Bramidae, also called pamplet or paplet) to the special sweets of the many festivals. Everything conspires to force you to put on weight. It’s the season to be careful.
“Get it over with,” was The Family’s verdict. “Let’s go to the beach and sea the fishing nets.” The fishing nets were much less impressive than icons of tourism have any right to be, but just before you reach them is heaven. At least a cat’s version of heaven: a sea food market with all the wonderful catch from boats pulled up between the shore nets. Everything you want is there: lobsters, squid in its own ink, octopus, shark, shrimp, shark!
A large fraction of the people at the beach were examining the fish with interest, but it didn’t look like much was being sold. There was much I couldn’t recognize, so I sent off the album to my family, large parts of which have dedicated their lives to fish. After the clamour died down there were IDs for four varieties of fish: small pomfret, rays, blue runner and the pearl spot. The many varieties of edible marine arthropods that you see in these photos remain unidentified down to the species. Sea food fans, if you have any further IDs, please leave them in the comments to the photo. Otherwise just enjoy, like the cat in the chair.