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Opinion | Pandemic-led logic and a new fish curry

There are many things we have learnt to do without since the pandemic began. We discuss the coconut and how to live without it

'This may not sound like a big deal but it is not easy for a Halarnkar to give up coconut'
'This may not sound like a big deal but it is not easy for a Halarnkar to give up coconut'

Since the pandemic began, there are two important things I have stopped: having a haircut and buying coconuts.

I am sure many of you, male or female, concur about the haircuts—and waxing, threading and so on. Me, I first let it grow until it filled in the bald patches. When I tired of hair on the nape of my neck and over my ears, I put to good, if chaotic, use a small hair clipper that my daughter and wife gifted me.

The first results were not pretty, and much mirth and horror ensued in the family. The second time was much better because my 10-year-old lent a hand and did a reasonable job of the back of the head, despite evidence that she had not done precisely what she was asked to.

Enough with the hair. A friend told me that there were couple of things agreeable about the covid-19 era: not wearing formal clothes and “socializing under obligation". I asked another friend what she learnt to do without, and she pretty much summed it up for many privileged families: Eyeliner, shoes, pants, domestic help, laying the table, cleaning toilets, chapatis, multiple dishes for every meal (more one-pot-stuff now, she said) and meat.

Meat? Well, she said, their preferred meat—beef and veal—was not always available, although fish and chicken were. The problem with a preponderance of chicken, as many meat-eaters have found, is that it is mostly broiler and boring. She was lucky though because the family found an entirely new culinary interest, their daughter’s evolved vegan cooking.

Vegetarian does not work for vast swathes of my family, unfortunately, and my cousin Sangeeta—the best cook I know—said her food never changed. Indeed, with no help, she went back to her first love and made greater mounds of food than ever before. We have been the grateful and happy recipients of her weekly largesse, which has included home-made, Thai-style fish, prawn, Bombay duck (the fish), vegetables and Goan-style clams. (Aside: As I was writing the previous sentence, she called to say she was sending biryani, prawn pickle and sabudana khichidi or, shall we say, spiced tapioca pearls)

To return to my problem with coconuts. There appears to be no logic to my logic. I suppose I stopped buying coconuts because I wondered how to sanitize them. I spent most of the pandemic washing fruits and vegetables with soap before I read last week that this was not a good idea (detergent has toxic compounds). Soaking them in water is fine, I learnt, but since coconuts are permeable, do we really want metal-laden tap water seeping in? See, no logic.

I found I was not the only one. Another friend, who runs a popular daily food business, said she soaks coconuts and onions overnight. The onions swell but the coconuts stay the same because the inner shell is, well, a hard nut. “I know it may not make sense, but I feel safer," she tells me. What did I say about logic.

This shunning of coconuts turned out to be a blessing because our fish curries became healthier. The 10-year-old went so far as to say that the non-coconutty curries were often better than our traditional ones, which cannot do without coconut.

Ever since a heart episode about seven years ago, I have experimented with fish curries without coconut, but the best one I tasted was the one made by our part-time cook, Ambika. The ingredients did not appear to be different from the one I made, but there were subtle and important differences. You can try my version of her recipe below.

This may not sound like a big deal but it is not easy for a Halarnkar to give up coconut. It is essential to our being, much as lassi is to the Punjabi, as poetry is to the soul, as stars are to the sky—you understand. Yet I have wrenched myself away and adjusted so well that I no longer miss chutney with coconut. While I am not sure I can forever forsake coconut in my fish curries, I know now that it is worth a shot.

Ambika’s Fish Curry

Ambika's fish curry
Ambika's fish curry

Serves 4


750g firm sea fish (I used rawas, or Indian salmon)

1 and a half large onions

3 tomatoes

20 cloves garlic

Three-fourths tsp methi (fenugreek) seeds

1 tbsp curry leaves

2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tbsp tamarind, dissolved in warm water

4 tsp oil

Salt to taste


Grind onion and garlic with a little water to get a paste. Set aside. Grind the tomatoes to a paste as well. In a non-stick pan, heat 3 tsp of oil on medium heat. Drop in the methi seeds and half a minute later, add the curry leaves. When they start to splutter, add the onion-garlic paste and fry till it starts to brown. Add the Kashmiri chilli powder and sauté, adding another tsp of oil. Add tomatoes and mix well. Add turmeric powder. Add tamarind water and let the curry boil for 15 minutes, so the flavour of the tomatoes diminishes. Stir in salt. Slide in the fish. Gently shake the pan so the curry coats the fish. Switch off the gas after 5 minutes and cover with lid. The fish will cook. You can gently heat before serving if required.

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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