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Calming pandemic tensions with a steamed fish recipe

If you rue Covid-era tension or extra weight, consider the power of cooking with hot vapour to make you light, lithe and raring to go

Steamed pomfret with kokum, chilli and basil (Samar Halarnkar)
Steamed pomfret with kokum, chilli and basil (Samar Halarnkar)

Last week, for the first time in nearly a year, I went for a swim. The rules had changed, of course, in the covid-19 era. You had to call ahead and book your lane. You could have no more than an hour. No more than seven swimmers were allowed in the pool at a time. Those below 16 and above 70 were banished to a newer, shallower and smaller pool.

The last rule disturbed me the most. Much like governments using the pandemic to withdraw or clamp down on our freedoms, the club officials had given in to uncles and aunties who fumed at childhood exuberance and geriatric slowness. They seized the great pause to impose their hegemony. I thought it betrayed a typically Indian adult churlishness, a have-power-will-use-it attitude. Now my 10-year-old, who swims faster than most of the uncles and aunties, would be separated from me and that would be the end of our pool fun—water acrobatics, monkey in the middle, and racing each other.

She tested the small pool first and failed it. “It’s barely 3ft deep, appa,” she complained. “And so short, in a few strokes I am at the other end.” She wanted to join me when I followed two days later, but I pointed out that we could not possibly swim together, as instructed. I booked my lane, as instructed. I kept my mask on until just before entering the pool, as instructed. I showered outside, as instructed.

And then I found I had the pool to myself.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon, and the uncles and aunties were obviously more focused on drinking and eating or snoozing. So, why not make exceptions or be more flexible? Why deprive family togetherness? As I fumed over this dog-in-the-manger attitude, I started exercising my rusty swimming muscles. Boy, were they rusty. In the event, I struggled along to 50 laps and clambered out hungry and well worn.

Post-swimming hunger is a dangerous thing. It is distinct from post-running hunger, which in my experience is not as intense. Post-swimming hunger leaves you with a strong craving that tends to wash away resolutions and diets. Food tastes better and lighter. When I started hour-long, non-stop swims following orthopaedic orders a few years ago, I ballooned, primarily because even pork sorpotel appeared light after 80 laps.

Healthwise, I did not do too badly in the pandemic. I perfected the art of running up and down my building driveway uncountable times or running up the stairs or vaguely following random YouTube health gurus to evolve a routine that felt right. Therefore, I have emerged—well, unless the second wave hits us—lighter and fitter than ever.

Mindful of this fact, I have slightly tweaked my expansive and somewhat careless eating habits, made more careless because once you conquer a cardiac event and feel all-conquering, you tend to become complacent. The trigger was a spate of heart attacks and deaths of acquaintances and celebrities recently. Sobered up, I went back to restricting or removing coconut milk in my fish curries, oil on my dosas, fatty pork from every weekend meal, and generally taking a little extra care.

So it was that I began to reacquaint myself with something once familiar to me: steaming. We in India love our spices and deep frying, but steaming food is not unusual. Think of idlis, the ultimate steamed favourite. All over the North-East, they steam rice, pork or fish. The Parsis steam fish, as do the Bengalis. There are vegetarian steamed options as well: As a child, I loved the alu vadis we made—steamed and spiced colocasia leaves.

But I truly fell in love with steamed food after tasting a myriad Asian options, especially from the South-East. Prominent among these is, obviously, the dim sum, that delectable little morsel forged in a furnace of hot vapour. During my university days in the US in the early 1990s, I remember sampling at least half of 80 available dim sum varieties served by taciturn hostesses at a restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown.

Some years later, I drove my in-laws nuts by telling them I wanted a bamboo steamer—well, they asked me to choose anything. They scoured Seattle until, after days of searching, they found the vexed object of their favourite—and only—son-in-law’s desire. Alas, I did not actually think of the steamer when I launched my latest rediscovery of steaming.

Instead, I used my mother’s idli steamer, awkwardly arranging inside it the three pieces of fish that you see in the photograph. Since swimming had awaked my desire for ultra-healthy, minimalist and delicious food—not an easy combination—I experimented with whatever was available on a rushed Monday morning.

There wasn’t much: some red chillies, some kokum (a souring agent) and olive oil. But that’s the beauty of steaming—it isn’t demanding of your time or of complexity, depending as it does on the freshness of ingredients. Oh yes, there was fresh basil on the wife’s kitchen balcony, a towering mother of a plant that had sprouted from a cutting she had carefully carried from my cousin’s house in coastal Maharashtra two months ago. This was all I needed. I felt calm, lithe, and ready to do battle with the hegemons of the swimming pool. Bring them on.


Serves 1


3 pieces black pomfret

1 dried red chilli

3 pieces kokum

1 tsp olive oil

Salt to taste

4-5 fresh basil leaves


Soften the chilli and kokum in a little warm water for 15 minutes. Chop fine. Apply salt, olive oil and the chopped chilli and kokum to the fish. Steam for 10 minutes in a steamer of your choosing. Garnish with torn basil.

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.


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