I SEE FOOD
The quiet journey from maacher jhol to grilled fish has happened mostly thanks to increased travel and heightened media exposure.
I see food, I eat it.
I grew up in Calcutta of the 70's.
To us, seafood was something you read about in books.
Our prawns were from fresh water, our crabs were mud crabs.
And the fish were sweet water fish.
Pomfret was the only salt water fish that were seen in the markets.
And pomfrets were really cheap as no self respecting Bangali would eat sea fish.
At that time we did not know that pomfret has the right Greek letter (omega) with the right numeral (3) in it.
I guess the first time I had encountered sea food was when I went to America.
There I came face to face with a game changer.
A whole different world opened up in front of the middle class Bangali boy.
Tuna sandwiches and tuna salads became things of joy.
With time, things like salmon, grouper, snapper came into my consciousness.
And then, the giant step of sushi was taken by me.
Sushi is basically rice and fish. The very definition as well as the antithesis of the adage maachhe bhate Bangali.
One of my most interesting encounters with seafood has been in Sri Lanka, in front of Galle Face Hotel, by the Indian Ocean.
There was this guy who was frying small soft shell crabs and serving them with a very piquant sauce.
Crunchy crabs, dunked in a sauce that was alive with coriander, mint, lime, chili, salt and dried small fish. Each bite was a taste of spicy ocean.
Having said that, I pity the poor tuna that is generally served in a curry form there.
Tuna is a very large fish and it is hacked into smaller pieces, usually cooked to death in a very rich curry.
You don't really know what you are eating. Could be tuna, could be rubber.
In Singapore, I had periwinkle for the first time.
It was eponymously called a mixed seafood soup. This was in one of their many food courts.
The periwinkle was so fresh that it was still sandy. This I say in a good way.
I also had beautiful oyster croquets. Soft oyster meat embedded in lovely starch balls, deep fried.
Thailand is the place where I came face to face with many different kinds of seafood. From stingray to cuttle fish to squids to snapper to shark to large tuna.
Amazingly simply cooked. Thailand presents seafood in all its glory, how it is meant to be.
A quick sauté with garlic and chili, a fast sear on a hot plate, a couple of minutes on hot coal, simply tossed with fresh herbs. Seafood in Thailand always presents an interesting point and also equally interesting counterpoint.
Today I find Bangalis slowly opening up to seafood.
Today it is not uncommon to see grilled fish on a Bangali's plate.
Today the modern Bangali is experimenting with fried fish which is not maach bhaja necessarily.
What has helped this democratisation of seafood is this innocuous fish called basa.
Without any perceptible fishy smell and ample flesh, this fish has really caught the fascination of the modern Bangali.
Be it the crumbed fish fry or the battered fried fish, be it the panang curry of the stir fried fish in black bean sauce, be it the balsamic glazed grilled fish, basa is quickly becoming the fish of choice.
Funnily enough, basa is not even a sea fish. It is largely farmed and mass-produced.
This quiet journey from maacher jhol to grilled fish has happened mostly thanks to increased travel and heightened media exposure. With every lifestyle channel boasting celebrity chefs who are whipping up seafood delicacies in no time, we are quickly following suit. We are also adapting very fast. For every fresh snapper that we do not get easily, we use bhetki. For every lobster, there is large prawn. Squids are substituted with cuttle fish, notwithstanding the different texture and mouth feel.
The other thing that has not really seen any innovation at least in the Bangali kitchen is the lonely crab. So celebrated in most other culinary cultures, it has remained in one or two classic Bangali recipes and not really has marched on a la Singapore, Thailand or any Western culture.
I have been a convert. My first bite of sushi and I knew I was hooked for life. I love seafood that is close to nature and not too heavily cooked.
In fact, one of the best dishes I ever tasted was this fresh raw prawn that I had at a sushi bar in California.
My mother has not gotten over that incident yet.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Food prepared by Mermaid Beach Resort, Cox’s Bazar