Every time I come to Kerala, I leave without eating the fish that I hear so much about. Eating fish in Kerala is as much about the way it’s made as it is about the fish itself. So while fresh fish IS made at home, I always have the urge to try it at restaurants, shacks and tiny ‘fish meals’ places.
This time, leaving without eating out was not an option. A balmy night, great company and a nice restaurant saw us polishing off two grilled groupers. All there was to spice it up was some lemon juice and pepper. When I say that I didn’t know you could actually do that to fish without leaving a dubious taste, I am being kind to my ignorance. The salt, lemon and pepper sat on the fish so gracefully that it brought home again why I dearly love fish.
Except for one beady eye looking at me — I am told some folks in Kerala eat it all: the scales, eyes, eggs, everything. I am sure I am missing out on something but I’d gladly pass up the eyes. The scales, although, I am looking forward to trying.
Eating fish, to me, then, has always been something one needed to develop into a fine art. Like preserving butterflies or getting a bride ready so that her pictures come out great but she doesn’t scare the guests off. Or worse, the groom. It’s something that I associate with the delicate nature of Japanese art. The fineness of a fish and its flavours is top notch unlike, say, beef or chicken (unless you’re eating a beef carpaccio) just like a cherry blossom tree before spring comes, in a Japanese painting. Stark and delicate and hard to ignore.
Fry it in Mummy’s spices and coconut oil with curry leaves, or cook it in a thick gravy of grated coconut a la R’s grandmother. Or tandoori it. Or marinate it in some garlic, chillies and coriander and grill it gently. Or do it in a hundred other ways that you can make fish in and you’ll still find that the least pleasure is gained from it when you eat hungrily.
Any of the above is best eaten when you’re just starting to get that little feeling in your head that makes you want to chew and taste and fill your stomach. Fish, in any form, is best eaten when you are going to allow your tongue to feel it’s white (mostly) flesh unravel on it. When you consciously and lovingly peel a strip of its tenderness off the virginal bone, feel the velvet of its shimmery skin and place it exactly at that spot on your tongue the milks the maximum flavour for you. When you know that you can sacrifice the rice, the whatever else you eat with fish, and make a meal of the fish alone. But most of all fish is best eaten when you’ve just realised that there’s nothing else you’d rather eat than this ‘flower of the sea’, as they call it. And oh, you’re never going to enjoy your fish if you are going to worry about how your hands are going to smell at the end of the meal. Salt and lemons will do the trick for you if you don’t trust soaps alone.
After days of eating red meat, my fish craving was getting bad. And then when I saw that big grouper, smelling of coal and heaven, I knew that I just didn’t understand what I was saying when I kept saying that I loved seafood. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, comes close to a fish well done.
Next on my seafood trip is fresh crab. I’ll let you know how that goes.