Summer is around the corner, and in Bengaluru that means warm days but cool evenings. So spoilt are we by this otherwise wrecked city’s still-salubrious climate, however, that we complain of how hot it is and how things have changed over the years.
Admittedly, this is not the city I once knew. Gone are the stone homes without fans, never needed in a city once carpeted with trees. Gone are the roundabouts clad in seasonal flowers. Gone are the monkey tops and the Udyavans and the Shyamprakashs, with their tables under roofs of flowering creepers. Gone are the jackfruit, mango, coconut and conifers that abounded in bungalows now consigned—although a few still hang on around my house—to history books and memory.
Every day, another tree is hacked, replaced by the concrete pylon of a flyover or Metro line, and yet, the ghosts of the past persist, especially those giants, the rain trees so beloved of this column and of those who call themselves old Bengalureans. Their giant canopies still defiantly shut out the sun from many avenues.
This is a season when they take a break, though, and let the sun through. It is spring, the brief interregnum between winter and summer. The trees shed their leaves and carpet the roads, pavements and parks in layers of brown and ochre. It is a time of renewal, creation and thought.
In my kitchen, as I watch the shadows of winter retreat, I think hard about renewal. My resolution of the season is to use ingredients that are fresh and immediate. I am taking a break from packaged spices, however charming they might be. I spent much of the winter using my favourite spice from the Shevde family on the Konkan coast, but with time I find their freshness dissipating.
It is time to create. On the day I decide to start afresh, I am at my mother’s home, and I have persuaded her to order comfort food: a full fish from the local fishmonger Rabbani. The conversation rarely changes.
“Kya hai?” my mother asks.
“Sabbi hain ma,” he answers. “Pomfret hai, surmai hai, rawas hai, bangda hai, salmon hai, prawns hai…” Occasionally, to get her excited, he will conspiratorially say, “Aaj Bombay duck hai.”
This week, he has been told to send a full fish. This must be made clear: mundi uda ko, clean kar ko, cuts mar ko—those are my standing instructions.
“Tandoor ke liye hona?”
Every time he understands, but when the fish arrives, a giant head always stares mockingly at me. I think Rabbani has got it right only a couple of times. Some effort and a messy beheading later, the fish is ready for the oven. Usually, it’s the easiest thing. Lather the fish with Shevde’s fish masala, some lime or tamarind, salt, rub it into the slits and it’s ready to marinate. A 40-minute roast in the oven, and there you are.
In keeping with the season of renewal, I begin from scratch, working with whatever my mother’s kitchen throws up. For once, Rabbani not just gets it right but asks, side cut hona? And delivers. If you are wondering, a side cut leaves the fleshy part of the head intact while hacking out the teeth and other bony bits.
There wasn’t much at hand: tamarind, garlic, whole red chillies, cumin and coriander seeds, salt and sesame oil. But the fish was firm and fresh, and the spices were whole, waiting for their flavours to be released.
With a light breeze blowing in through the newly bereft trees, I enjoyed the heady aroma of roasting spices. A little hand-pounding, and the fish was ready, as you can see. Just as we were sitting down to enjoy the products of my labour, the 10-year-old said she had never taken anything for her generous friend downstairs (who is older than me) and could she please take a part of the fish?
All right, I said reluctantly. Then she got choosy. You can’t give the head appa, and, no, you can’t give the tail, appa. That left the fleshy middle, which she carried off triumphantly, leaving us staring at the skimpy head and tail. I suppose it’s also the season to be generous.
ROASTED FISH WITH FRESH SPICES
700g whole fish, scored, with head cleaned
Half tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
3 red chillies
6-7 pieces of garlic
3 tbsp tamarind juice
2 tsp sesame oil
Salt to taste
Roast the coriander and cumin seeds and red chillies until they release an aroma and start to pop. Pound to a rough powder with a mortar-pestle. Add garlic and continue pounding to a paste. Apply paste with tamarind, salt and sesame oil to the fish, taking care to rub into the slits. Coat foil with oil and wrap fish. Set oven to 150 degrees Celsius for 25 minutes. Open foil and increase to 180 degrees for 20 minutes, taking care to baste the fish. Remove to a serving tray, garnish with sliced tomatoes and fresh coriander.
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.