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Home > Food> Cook > A baked ‘betki’ recipe to break summer’s grim quietude

A baked ‘betki’ recipe to break summer’s grim quietude

An Indian summer—particularly one in a pandemic—does not inspire joy and creativity, but be grateful for fleeting moments of abundance and inspiration

Samar Halarnkar's baked betki.
Samar Halarnkar's baked betki.

In the West, they like to wax eloquent about summer.

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They talk of its warmth and its joys. They regard it as a season that must be prolonged, in mind if not in spirit. As Henry David Thoreau said, “One must maintain a little bit of summer even in the middle of winter.” They write about blossoms and beginnings, of renewal and new experiences. They use it as a simile and a metaphor, likening it to the end of childhood or the start of life, comparing it to warm hugs and hot saunas, rays of hope and delicious desserts.

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Mostly, they recognise its impermanence. “Summer’s lease,” wrote William Shakespeare, “hath all too short a date.”

It’s clear Shakespeare, Thoreau and the rest never lived in India.

Unless we live up in the hills, we cannot wait for summer to end. And if we live along the coasts, there is little chance of respite from it. Many parts of India know only two seasons: hot and hotter.

There are, of course, some regions with three and even four seasons. But they are not as clearly defined as they are in most of Europe and North America. As a consequence, we tend not to be as expressive about the seasons in general and about—an often pestilential—summer in particular.

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What we do care and become emotional about, though, is the coming of the monsoon, as Kalidasa was in Ritusamhara, or the garland of seasons. His description of summer—hot earth and lily ponds—soon gives way to the joy of the first rains, like the changing relationship, he writes, of lovers. We all rejoice at this seasonal cusp marked by marching ranks of dark, heavy cumulonimbus clouds. Our overwhelming emotions in a bare, baked subcontinent are relief and respite.

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I have always been inspired by the heat, though. I have always found something elemental and challenging about standing in a steaming kitchen before a hot fire. A simple lunch became a thing of achievement, the mundane turned heroic. Perhaps it was all in my mind but I did feel a sense of particular satisfaction about summer cooking.

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But this summer was like no other. The only emotion we managed to summon was a combination of sorrow and anger. We were barely aware of the heat and dust, roiled as our lives were by disease and death. May is when the heat peaks over the land; this year, it was also the month when the pandemic peaked. There was never a summer in which the tribulations of the season were so easily ignored or appeared as distant.

So we ran through summer without complaint, mindful of good health and life, waiting not for the monsoon and deliverance from the heat but for the second wave of a pandemic to recede. It now appears there might be some respite, at least in the cities, but given our abysmal rate of vaccination, no one can say when a third or a fourth wave will wash upon us.

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Locked down here in Bengaluru, we are utilising the beginning of the pause to indulge in the small pleasures of life. There is no chance, yet, of a walk in the park or a drink at the bar. What we do have is badminton in the driveway, a jog around a cul de sac and—as I wrote in an earlier column—happy hour in the balcony. As the rains near, other small pleasures emerge: mangoes and litchis, of which we gladly partake.

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My grand summer culinary experiments may have dwindled this year but every now and then I find inspiration to reinfuse some brightness into my kitchen and life. This often appears difficult, given the paucity of supplies. For instance, my mother, who orders my fish, reported that her fishwalla said he could offer nothing more than black pomfret or “small fish”, the kind he considered not worth mentioning. “Machchi nai arri, ma,” he said. There’s no fish coming.

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When it did, I grabbed the opportunity offered by sudden abundance. It would be, I decided, a quiet celebration to the end of the warm weather (we cannot, in all truthfulness, call Bengaluru’s relative mild summer anything more than that). Surely, now that we had firm, fresh betki (or barramundi) after so long, I should make something unusual of it? Unusual, however, should not mean complicated. I put together a simple baked fish to mark the end of a grimly quiet summer. May it—sooner than later—lose its grimness and quietude.

End-Of-Summer Baked Barramundi

Serves 4

Ingredients

750g firm fish fillets (I used betki or barramundi)

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1 medium onion, finely sliced

1 tomato, sliced

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp chilli flakes

1 tsp fresh parsley

1 tsp honey

2 tbsp white wine vinegar (substitute with white wine if you like)

3 tsp olive or vegetable oil

Salt to taste

Method

Marinate the fish with salt, honey, chilli flakes, dried oregano and vinegar for 30 minutes.

Coat an oven-proof dish with 1 tsp oil. Spread sliced onions over the dish and bake in the oven at 220 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes, or until lightly caramelised. When done, spread sliced tomatoes over the onions and the marinated fish over the tomatoes. Baste fish with 1 tsp oil and bake uncovered at 200 degrees for 15 minutes. Baste, too, with the liquid released. Pour over the third teaspoon of oil, increase the heat to 220 degrees for 5-10 minutes, or until the tops of the fish are lightly brown. Garnish with parsley and serve with bread or couscous.

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Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11

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