Updated: July 3, 2010 17:22 IST

Fishy tales all the way

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A book that wanders across this vast country, exploring taste buds and traditions.

According to its writer, this book is travel writing “in its absolute essence: plain, old-fashioned journalism, disabuser of notions, destroyer of preconceptions, discoverer of the relative, shifting nature of truth”. For a reader, it is a journey through a world where gills and fins are more in focus than cities and streets, with a generous and welcome helping of people and personalities, with some politics added to spice up the finished dish.

For a foodie, it all starts off most promisingly, with that bony delicacy so prized by the true-blue Bengali; in fact the ability to eat hilsa, manna on a Kolkata plate, without death or at least injury by one of those hidden sharp ends, could perhaps be the shibboleth-test for the Bengali gene. The writer looks for the fish during the winter, when the Kolkata weather is near-perfect, but soon learns that it is not just a fish, but a “lesson in moral science: Good things come to those who wait”. In search of this piscine paragon, he wanders into the Howrah fish market, unfortunately in open-toed sandals and waits …and waits. Finally, he not only manages to find the fish, watch it being prepped for cooking and eats it, but also manages, albeit slowly, carefully, occasionally painfully, to separate bone from meat in his mouth without choking on either.

Faith and fish

Having passed the perilous test presented by consumption of ilish maach, our hero then wanders along to Hyderabad and beyond. First he investigates the famous fish cure for asthma in the city of the Charminar; he meets the people involved, discusses the science of the ‘ medicine', looks into the politics of the situation and the economics of keeping the much-mooted practice flourishing for so many years and then is left wondering whether it is all really true, or just a matter of faith.

A little history lesson follows, this time in Tamil Nadu, at the Church of the Holy Cross in Manapadu. Religion met the sea and managed to make friends with it, many centuries ago, and the two established a unique community with its esoteric class system. In the process of discovering how it works, the author discovers a fish podifound in infinite variations all over the state; added to rice and a little ghee or oil, it is fabulously delicious, the perfect meal…almost…until the next new food in the next leg of the journey.

A treatise on toddy, sometimes from a perspective not entirely sober, takes the writer through Kerala, looking for the drink in its stages of alcoholic potency, accompanied by the seafood that partners it. Looking for a legendary fish curry in Mangalore and eating with the Kolis of erstwhile Bombay spice up the transit.

Serious note

A serious and socially conscious note is struck in Goa, where the author listens to tall tales of sparring with sailfish and takes a look at the destruction of the beaches caused by the same tourist trade that made the small state so prized as a travel destination. The journey comes to an end in a shipyard in Gujarat, where a fishing boat is being crafted in a manner that is age-old and timeless, even though its makers have learned to use the technology available today to do so.

This is a book that wanders across this vast and wonderful country, exploring its taste buds and traditions, taking frequent diversions and tangents into socio-politics and psychology, in language that is free-flowing yet a web tangled with journalese, experience, skill and a soupcon of pedantic verbosity. In that, with that, it is fun to read, in parts, and tells you a lot about the land that is eternally fascinating and a delicious place to explore.

Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast; Samanth Subramanian; Penguin, Rs. 250

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