Every morning when I board the train for my work I have the pleasure of seeing a known set of my co passengers – doctors, teachers and a large group of fish whole sellers. These people buy fish from the Sealdah wholesale market primarily for supply to suburban small towns. I look forward everyday to see the array of fish in their haul. Fish is a food from the earth’s other world, it’s vast water underworld. Humans have long been nourished by fish and it built nations on them as well. The history of the world’s fisheries are not only the saga of human ingenuity and bravery but also of unlimited hunger. Apart from depleting the fish population, fishing also caused collateral damage to other underwater species.
There are many parts of the world which loves its fish- be it the Salmon, the Mackarel, the Cod, the Hilsa,the Tilapia or the Pomfret . The list is endless – either sea fish or fresh water catch. Fish to me is as fragile as the heart of a jilted lover. Lot of care, timing and precision goes into it to take the fresh catch cooked to the dinner table. In the book Physiology of Taste, Brillart Savarin wrote,”Fish are an endless source of meditation and astonishment.” Fish is cooked in myriad ways across the world – fried,stewed, grilled,broiled, baked, poached, sauted, dried. In the book Of Ancient Customs by Michael de Montaigne, he outlines how fish was prepared in ancient Rome. “In summer in their lower rooms they often had clear fresh water run in open channels underneath, in which there were a lot of live fish, which the guest would select and catch in their hands to be prepared to the taste of each.”
An ancient way of cooking fish is to enclose it in a layer of clay, coarse salt, leaves to shield it from direct heat and to let the fish gently cook. The covering is served intact to be opened at the dining table, releasing aroma that would otherwise have been lost. Fish continues to be cooked in this manner in many parts of India be it the Paturi or the Patrani Machi. Apicus gave a recipe of Stuffed Bonito where he wrote about boning the Bonito. Then followed pounding together of cumin, pepper,mint, nuts and honey which he prescribed to stuff the fish with and then wrap the fish in parchment paper. The parceled fish had to be placed in a covered pan over steam. The fish when served was seasoned with oil, reduced wine and fermented fish paste.
The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”) is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure.The recipes were compiled in the late fourth or early fifth century and were derived from a variety of sources, although many were his own.The ten books with over five hundred recipes were arranged like a modern cookbook, which included recipes for meats, vegetables, legumes, fowl, meat, seafood, and fish.The book contains over four hundred of recipes of fish which included a sauce, invariably made with fermented fish sauce named as garum or defrutum,a syrupy reduction of grape juice. The preparation of most sauces began with a blend of spices and herbs, usually pepper, which often were combined with cumin.Then,it was ground in a mortar with fruits ,(plums, dates, raisins) nuts (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts)as well as liquids, including either Garum, water, stock, milk, honey, oil, vinegar, and wine.The thickening agent was wheat starch but also included the yolks and whites of eggs, pounded dates, and steeped rice or the water in which the food had been boiled. Fish sauces tended to be particularly elaborate-boiled murena (likely eel) called for pepper, lovage, dill, celery seed, coriander, dried mint, and rue, as well as pine nuts, honey, vinegar, wine, and oil .Seneca mentioned Apicius, who competed for a huge mullet put up for sale by Tiberius .Digesting “the blessings of land and sea”, Apicius was the very embodiment of effete prodigality, his cooking school “defiled the age with his teaching.”
Although both Pliny and Apicius wrote in the 1st century AD, they perceived the Mullet in completely different ways. Pliny was fascinated by the value of the fish, which he complained costs as much as a cook once did to prepare it. For Apicius, “a man who displayed a remarkable degree of ingenuity in everything relating to luxury”, proposed a prize for anyone who could invent a new sauce for the fish.The Mullet to Apicus whether served in a shallow pan (pantina), salted or grilled, was less important than the sauces accompanying it (De Re Coquinaria, IV.2.22, 31; IX.10.6, 7, 9; X.1.11, 12).
The oldest cookbook may be by Apicius, but that is not to say that he was the first epicure. Archestratus, a Sicilian Greek whose 4th century BC poem on gastronomy survives in the sixty fragments preserved by Athenaeus. In reading them, one is struck by his emphasis on simplicity and insistence that a delicate fish be sprinkled only with a little salt and basted with olive oil, “for it contains the height of pleasure within itself”.
“‘There is nothing,’ you say, ‘more beautiful than a dying surmullet [mullo]. In the very struggle of its failing breath of life, first a red, then a pale tint suffuses it, and its scales change hue, and between life and death there is a gradation of colour into subtle shades….See how the red becomes inflamed, more brilliant than any vermilion! Look at the veins which pulse along its sides! Look! You would think its belly were actual blood! What a bright kind of blue gleamed right under its brow! Now it is stretching out and going pale and is settling into a uniform hue.'”
Seneca, Natural Questions (III.18.1,4)
The red or barbed mullet (Mullus barbatus, from mulleus, “red”) is a small bottom-feeding fish that, although mentioned by the Greeks, does not seem to have elicited any special enthusiasm. The famed gourmet Archestratus comments only on the best locales where it could be found (Athenaeus, VII.325D). In a letter to Atticus, Cicero speaks of wealthy Romans feeding by hand “the bearded mullet in their fish ponds” ( II.1.7). According to Columella, the mullet is difficult to maintain there “since it is a very delicate kind of fish and most intolerant of captivity, and so only one or two out of many thousands can on rare occasions endure confinement” (VIII.17.7).
Of the various kinds described by Pliny, it was the flavor of the red mullet, which tasted like an oyster, that was most appreciated. The fish, he says, also was called the “shoe mullet” (IX.65) because its color (mulleus) was that of the mulleus calceus, the distinctive red shoe (calceus patricius) worn by patricians, which Isidore compares to the red scales of the fish (Origines, XIX.34.10). Tertullian has such a shoe worn by the madam of a Carthaginian brothel to comment on the inconsistency between what is worn and the character of the one who wears it (De Pallio, IV.10).
The Greek name for the fish is triglê, which Athenaeus argued derive from the fact that the red mullet was said to spawn three times a year. By analogy, the mullet was dedicated to Hecate, the goddess of crossroads who looks three ways (Athenaeus, VII.324D ff).In spite of Pliny’s declaration that the mullet was plentiful, Juvenal complains that they have to come from Corsica or Sicily, “since our own sea [the Tyrrhenian] has been totally ransacked to the point of exhaustion, since gluttony rages, the delicatessens raking the nearest waters with nonstop nets—and we don’t let the Tyrrhenian fish grow to size”.
Hilsa has been the prized catch in this part of the land bordering Bay of Bengal.The love for Hilsa connects the the two neighbouring countries which were not long ago part of the same nation.Both the countries account for 3/4 th of this fish of the herring family harvested worldwide. Hilsa like mullet and cod is in danger. Over fishing by trawlers,ecological imbalances, siltation, and under aged Hilsa fishing are the root causes of the near depletion. The Hilsa migrates upstream into fresh water for spawning and greedy fishermen scoop out juveniles as well as pregnant ones.Barrages have also intercepted the migratory route.Ban on hilsa fishing for the breeding months are flouted. Hilsa sanctuaries in Bangladesh are yielding positive results.Fervently hop e that Hilsa does not vanish as the Cod did in the Pacific and we do not love Hilsa to death.
When I talked at length about the story of fish in history, felt the urge to share a couple of recipes which I love to cook. Red mullet is not available in this part of the world ,I do this recipe with Bhetki fillets.It crossed my mind that it would be ideal with a mullet fillet too. The mullet fillet has to be seasoned with salt,pepper and extra virgin olive oil.The fish has to be grilled skin side up on a lightly greased baking tray. To make a chili oil I finely chop garlic and put it in hot oil over the flame.I add some red chilli flakes for color.The heat has to be lowered to the minimum till the oil takes in the flavor of the chilli and garlic.You will be surely bowled over by the aroma.I make an aubergine mash with the fish.The roasted aubergine is peeled and mixed with garlic,lemon juice,cumin and a tahini sauce in a blender.Some olive oil is added too for the shine and texture.I serve the fish topped with the chili garlic oil and some parsley with the aubergine mash on the side.
The Hilsa is cooked in myriad ways on both sides of the border.Some prefer it steamed with mustard paste,some debone it and roast it,some like the hilsa in mustard oil sans water with begun or aubergines.Bangladesh even uses the Hilsa fish head to make a pish pash of vegetables with bitter gourd.Tasted this some time ago at a friend’s house and would love to share the timeless recipe with all.The fish head was marinated with salt and turmeric powder and was fried till brown.In the same oil I fry the diced bitter gourd and keep it aside.The left over oil is tempered with bay leaves,panch phoron or five spices and red chilli till spluttering.I add some grated ginger and the bori or lentil dumplings and fry till light brown.I add the diced vegetables of potatoes papaya,radish,carrot and raw banana.After stir frying them I put in water and cover till the veggies are nearly done.The fried fish head is added at this stage and with the spatula break the head in two pieces.When boiling I add the fried bitter gourd and some milk .For flavour I drizzle a teaspoon of ghee and cover to seal the flavors.It is best had with plain boiled rice and for lunch.
The most popular and widely available fish in Bengal is the Rohu and the Katla ,belonging to the family of Carps.On a leisurely Sunday I love to experiment with dishes of Katla. Made a Katla recipe with white sesame seeds paste and yoghurt .I fry the Katla pieces well after salt and turmeric marination.I make a paste of white sesame seed and some cashew with a green chilli. In hot mustard oil I add whole garam masala,bay leaves and whole red chilli. When spluttering I slid in the sesame paste ,some turmeric,red chilli powder and salt.When the oil separates I add the yogurt and put in the fish.I cover the pan for around 10 min.In a separate pan I fry onions till brown and dry the oil over a napkin .After 10 min I add some garam masala and coriander leaves.Before serving I add the fried onions to the fish and serve with plain steamed rice.
The fishy tales goes back long in history and with a fervent hope they survive long long time after with careful conservation, responsible consumption and vigilant ecological watch.