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Fish, friendship and generosity in Punjabi kitchens

Mild suggestions or strong lectures on keeping dinner simple makes sense for reunions of the middle-aged. Fortunately, sense is best ignored

'Tandoori' pomfret.
'Tandoori' pomfret. (Istockphoto)

People have many reasons to travel: the destination, the journey, the experience, the people, the Instagram photographs. Take your pick.

I travel for the food.

Whenever I set out on a journey, whether for work or leisure, my mind unconsciously turns to what I will eat, not just at my destination but during the journey.

Last week, I needed to get to Delhi, a city that was home, on and off, for about 17 years but has drifted from my life and imagination. My journey began auspiciously, with a breakfast omelette stuffed with mushroom and spinach at a restaurant called Wolfgang Puck at Bengaluru’s airy and polished terminal 2. I was pleased because the chef catered to my low-oil request.

I needed to do two things in Delhi: meet a friend visiting the city for two days en route from Singapore to his mother in Dehradun, using his transit as an excuse to meet other old friends; and track down my provident fund, lost to the mists of my previous jobs.

Eating out is all very well, and there is a lot of great food in Delhi, which was a bastion of butter and tandoori chicken in my childhood. But these days I tire quickly of restaurant food. With very few exceptions, however good it might taste, it contains more butter, oil or salt than is good for me and usually leaves me thirsty and, often, bloated.

I had only one meal out, at a restaurant called Fig at Malcha in the sylvan environs of Malcha Marg in the diplomatic enclave. It was noisy, the food competent, but for the life of me I cannot remember what I ate. It could be because we were more focused on the bad jokes and joys of reunion.

Whenever I go to Delhi, I enjoy recalling what my friends ate, remembering the feel and smell of each heaving kitchen. They have known me for decades and don’t really notice my explorations of their shelves and fridges.

In line with Delhi’s large-hearted Punjabi culture, most of my friends went overboard. When I gave them either mild suggestions or unsolicited lectures—after all, what are friends for—on keeping dinner simple and healthy, they wholeheartedly agreed, especially since we all suffer from middle-aged ailments.

Then, they proceeded to ensure their tables were in imminent danger of collapse.

On the first day of my four-day sojourn, one friend delivered on the healthy food promise, dishing out a low-oil and quite spectacular chicken redolent with fresh spices and fenugreek. But in trying to generously cater to everyone’s middle-aged and rigidly set tastes, also set down kebabs, an egg curry, a prawn masala and sundry other things.

Another friend, to whom I had sent a message in advance about cooking only one meat and one veggie, said she intended to make only a baked chicken and a quiche. She had not reckoned with the husband, who had organised a fat-less pork curry for me, which was altogether delicious, and added on prawns and more. In any case, she didn’t really intend to listen to me.

One of her numerous additions was a pan-fried fish with spring onions, soy and ginger, the recipe to which you can read below. The fish was one of those family gems, originating from a friend’s mother called Gauri and modified by a series of cooks over the years—Parmila, Krishna and Mimjum were the names that reached me from many homes.

One day, another set of friends bundled me in their Wagon R and took me on an exploration of rural Gurugram, a district on the make like no other I’ve seen. Men stood by the side of the road of an unending line of gated complexes, holding out pamphlets urging you to come in, explore and buy a flat or a mansion. We drove past warehouse-like liquor stores, rural restaurants promising “diet menus”, including “tandoori diet chicken”, and glass towers, as fields slowly went to seed.

I finally had a simple meal at their rustic, peaceful leisure campsite: peas picked from their vegetable patch with paneer, dal and paratha. Back at their home, I had an excellent, sweet-sour chicken curry cooked by my friend’s 85-year-old father, the most industrious senior citizen I’ve ever met.

On the last day of my trip, I switched to the home of a friend who eats healthy every day, so I was relieved. Lunch was certainly modest—cabbage, dal and jowar bhakri—but dinner unfolded into a delicious extravagance of saag mutton, chicken stew, fat fish steaks and so on. You get the idea—there is no such thing as a simple meal in Delhi, and there is no limit to the love and affection that my friends will shower. I may gripe and grumble a bit at the steadfast inattention to my pleas for simplicity, but once the table is laid, I am more than happy to partake of their groaning tables and generosity.

GAURI’S FISH

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 kg fillet of any white fish—pomfret, betki, kingfish

2 tsp pepper

Juice of 1 lime

2 tbsp light soy sauce

Half cup chopped spring onion

Half cup chopped coriander

2 tbsp ginger julienned

One tbsp sesame or olive oil

Salt to taste

Method

Rub pepper, salt and lime juice into the fillet and set aside for an hour. Heat a quarter tbsp of sesame or olive oil gently in a non-stick or well-seasoned grill pan and fry the fish for a minute. Cover and let it steam for about five minutes. Open and spread the coriander, ginger juliennes and spring onion. Cover and cook until done. Before finishing, pour the soy sauce and the rest of the oil.

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. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

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