Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mangalorean magic... on a plate

I’m a bit obsessed with food. It’s flattering when friends who politely deal with my constant food-talk encourage me to write a food blog. I’d rather eat than write a food blog, but as I deal with withdrawal from a gastronomically fulfilling trip to India to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday – the grandmother who introduced me to the food for which I live - I am writing this little snippet.

I’m three quarters Punjabi and quarter Konkani. Yet, there was no direct Punjabi influence from Punjab in the food I grew up eating – my paternal grandmother passed away when my father was still in his teens, my paternal grandfather had lived abroad so much he never demanded Punjabi food, my maternal grandfather had run away from home in Delhi and moved to Bombay, where he later married my Mangalorean grandmother, who knew as much about Punjabi food as I do about Assamese. My mum, the eldest amongst her siblings, had been helping my grandmother cook since she was 10 (as I often heard during her several unsuccessful attempts to awaken my conscience and get me to help her in the kitchen). So while I was growing up, everyday food was the regular vegetarian roti–bhaji–daal with the occasional kadhi chawal or rajma chawal thrown in, but seafood and meat was always cooked Mangalorean style, using authentic recipes straight from the source. Now that I think of it, I can’t really remember seafood being cooked any other way at home, apart from the occasional continental stuff like grilled or baked fish, or fish cakes, but mostly with non-conventional fish like salmon, Vietnamese basa, etc. I don’t usually crave Indian food, and can go for months without eating it, but Mangalorean food is so finger-licking, plate-licking, cooking pot-licking good that I simply cannot imagine a life without it.

My grandmother, now 83, doesn’t cook anymore. But when she did, she was so good at it, I can spend a lifetime just cherishing all the food she ever cooked for me. While growing up, eating granny-cooked Mangalorean food was an event. She’d wake up early in the morning and go to the local Chaar Bangla fish market, get the best pomfret (or paaplet, as they call it in Bombaiya) or make a trip to the ‘broiler’, the local poultry store, where you can choose your live chicken from a cage and see it butchered in front of your eyes. She’d then grate fresh coconut, roast all the whole spices, and grind the mixture to make the curry. Once it was cooked, Shyaama Bai, an old Gujarati lady who looked after my mum and her siblings when they were growing up, would pack the fish (or chicken) curry and all the fantastic aromas emanating from it into a cylindrical steel ‘dabba’, and deliver it to our home. My grandmother would finish all the household chores and then join us at lunchtime. All the women - my mum, her sister (in the summers only), my grandmother, my sister, and I would then sit cross-legged around the pot of fresh fish curry and steamed surti kolam rice, and polish it all off until there were only fingers left to lick. On a good day, this would be accompanied by fried fresh bhangda (mackerel), or pomfret (it’s so good, you can have it fried and in curry form all in one meal), or bombil (Bombay duck), or jhinga (prawns), or shimpli (mussels) cooked in Konkani style.

For someone who swears by Mangalorean food, I am appallingly ignorant about the names of most of the dishes I know. All I know is that when you combine the goodness of whole spices such as coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorn, red chillies, etc. with the chastity of freshly grated, sweet, white coconut and the sanguinity of deep ruby red, sour kokum (a variety of mangosteen indigenous to the Konkan region of India) you can create magic. Throw in some fresh Indian Ocean seafood, and you’ll never want to eat seafood any other way.

It’s my dream to travel to Mangalore some day, identify a few veteran cooks, and learn all I can about Mangalorean cuisine from them. While I continue dreaming, I spent my Bombay trip eating all the foods I so immensely miss when I’m away from home. Until I get my next dose of mum made Mangalorean magic, here are some pictures (of food that I ate in Bombay this time) that will help me survive.

Surmai curry (usually made with pomfret)

Rawa fried paaplet

Crab masala

Chicken gassi

Surmai masala

The glorious paaplet


AbhishekN said...

Oh jeez. Why did I have to read this before lunch? Now I have to settle for a sushi lunch while my stomach craves some mouth-watering Mangalorean "meen" curry!!!

Reading your blog has unlocked so many smells from my childhood. And such interesting names - bombil, jhinga, shimpli - mmm... English is the poorer for lacking such beautiful words.

Pankaj Nangia said...

Yes Sonal, I can vouch for the quality of the fish. I've been treated to the delights every time I was in Bombay in the 80's and 90's.
And your Mom too has inherited the traits.

Gaurav Panwar said...

This blog made a vegetarian like me long for Mangalorean fish curry! Very well written Sonel!

bina said...

hey sonal, u have got me nostalgic..coming home from school to lunch made by my mom..(ur big mummy)of prawn curry with dhoodhi and steaming rice...not to miss shookha shimpi...i m lucky as my sis (ur mommie) makes the same...when i visit mumbai.i dont get a chance to get fresh fish in delli...u have have my mouth salivating....hmmmmmmmm