“Travel does nothing better than swinging a wrecking-ball into even your most meager expectations. A place is always hotter or wetter or drier than you suspect it will be; people will always turn out to have stories different from the ones you set out to hear; a society will when you think you’ve got it all figured out, always turn itself inside-out like a sock, to reveal its frayed threads, its seams, its patterns of stitch work. The real process of discovery works not be revealing things you knew nothing about, but by revealing how wrong you were about what you did not know”
Possibly, my most favorite quote from Samanth Subramaniam’s book and it perfectly epitomizes the way I think about travel. Perhaps, some day I will be able to pen down, articulately, what travel means to me. But that is post for another day, another time. For now, I will continue reading accounts about travel that do it best by combining it with food.
Samanth Subramanian’s book about ‘fishy’ travels across the coast of India is a treasure trove of anecdotes about people who dabble in anything to do with fish. Samanth takes us through West Bengal where he learns to eat Hilsa, Andhra Pradesh to swallow a live fish to cure asthma, Kerala in search of traditional fish recipes and toddy, Mangalore in Karnataka fishing around for the perfect fish curry, learning how to fish and angle in Goa, and wrapping up with building a boat in Gujarat.
While every tale in the book is delightful, my two favorite stories were easily On an odyssey through toddy shops and On Searching for a once-lost love. On an odyssey through toddy shops is a remarkable, lyrical, and evocative narrative about the search for the perfect toddy and toddy-shop food. In this story, Samanth is at his best, giving word to a quaint expedition from Vizhinjam, Kottayam, Trivandrum, Kozhikode, and Aleppy. From north to south Kerala, the kind of Toddy varies and so does the food that goes along with it- spicy fish fried in coconut oil. Spice is a constant factor, but it is tempered in the North through more coconut or coconut milk. The descriptions had my mouth watering and I found myself craving every fish that he wrote about, especially since I was stupidly reading the book on an empty stomach at the airport. I decided to get myself some food to satiate my craving, but returned with distaste at the unappetizing food at the airport. I couldn’t help but blame Subramaniam for the quandary I found myself in. Sample this line, “Karimeen arrived soon after, brown as toast, wrapped inside its greatcoat of masala, and dressed with black pepper and raw onions. It was a bony fish, but its meat was soft, picked apart by fingers almost as easily as cotton candy. This was magnificent eating- crisped masala, cut by the sweetness of the fish and the tartness of a squeeze of lemon”. Yum!
On searching for a once-lost love resonated with me on so many levels. How often have I found myself in the hunt for the perfect iftar food from the past, Aavin’s Milk Khoa- my favorite sweetmeat from my childhood, and most recently, jackfruit, the search of which is currently on! In this story, Samanth is in Mangalore in search of the perfect Mangalorean Fish Curry. Samanth begins this tale with these lines, “To attempt to write with enthusiasm about food, I have discovered, requires two great qualities: the ability to eat with a catholic, voluminous appetite, and the ability to eat out alone. The first is a purely physical constraint…The ability to dine out alone, however, seems to be like the ability to curl your tongue- either you have it or you don’t.” While I agree with him, I also think that enthusiastic writing about food also requires a dogged persistence for that perfect food memory and this Samanth does superbly in this tale. He samples fish curry from restaurant to restaurant, he finds some that he detests and some that he likes, only to be informed later by a man who doubles up as the president of the Mangalorean fisherman’s cooperative and the secretary of the Akhila Karnataka Fishermen’s Parishad, the National Fishworkers’ Federation and the Coastal Karnataka Fisherman Action Committee that the best Mangalorean Fish Curry is not found in restaurants, but in homes. This ‘accumulator of bureaucratic titles’ then directs his brother’s son’s wife to whip up a fish curry for Samanth. Finally satiated, Samanth then regales the title-holder with praises of the fish curry, only to have him tell Samanth, “…I wouldn’t know. You see, I don’t eat fish.” Simply marvelous from the first word until the last.
Although I liked the other stories in the book, at times, I found it difficult to follow the prose and some stories such as angling in Goa and building boats did not hold my attention. I wish Samanth had written more about fish preparations across coastal India and devoted less space to angling and carving boats. Indeed, these fascinating stories could have been devoted to another book itself.
Any book on travel makes me splutter and gasp for a good 5 minutes before I settle into read the words and make my own journey alongside the author. This book had me spluttering, gasping and licking my lips in anticipation of some delicious karimeen. It did not help that I was reading another book, ‘Chemmeen’ –a tale of a fishing community in Kerala on the side. Following Fish is fintastic!
P.S. My mother aided me in satisfying my fish craving by treating me to an array of fish at a Malwani restaurant in Pune. While the fish looked delectable, wrapped up in rice flour and deep fried, the masala had not seeped into the fish, rendering it bland. I love my mother’s fish preparations the best, and she is going to whip up a bombil (Bombay Duck) fried in rava for me.