The steamed white Caspian fish used to be a favourite with the Parsis when they were in Persia. But when they fled Iran and moved to India between the 8th and 10th centuries CE, they recreated similar flavours with local seawater fish such as the pomfret. From saas ni macchi to patra ni macchi, the pomfret, or the paplet, became an integral part of the community’s signature dishes. Similarly, the Sindhis, Bene Israels and Cochini Jews made local fish varieties such as bangda, surmai and mackerel their own, using them to create dishes reminiscent of the flavours from back home.
The fish almost became a medium of transference of memories.
There is a fascinating story associated with fish in the Bene Israel community, the name of which literally means 'children of Israel'. The oldest diaspora in the subcontinent, the first settlers came on board a ship, fleeing persecution in northern Palestine, around 2,200 years ago. Only seven men and women survived, taking refuge in Navgaon, a small village in the Konkan. Their descendants spread to different parts of the Western coast. They adapted to the local culture and cuisine but retained their kosher laws, one of which stated that the community couldn’t eat fish sans scales and fin. Centuries later, when a Jewish trader, David Rahabi, landed on the Konkan coast, he was surprised to find a thriving Judaic community there. To find out if they were following Jewish laws or not, he gave one of the women two fish, one with scales and the other without, to clean. She chose the one with scales, passing the test.
Today, fish is part of the community’s grand occasions, such as the Rosh Hashanah, or the new year. As the saying goes: May the Jewish population grow like the fish. Their signature fish dish, Alberas, is made on special days with coconut milk, small slices of potatoes and spices. Potatoes and spices are then layered with fish. Another curry is made with the fish head and the large bone of a big fish like dara or rawas.
As a child, Sifra Lentin, a Bombay history fellow at a Mumbai-based think tank, Gateway House, and a member of the Bene Israel community, used to have pulao ni macchi. The gravy used to be made on a flat tawa (griddle), and was allowed to simmer till the fish was cooked. It was eaten with fragrant yellow rice, sweetened with cinnamon. “We don’t eat anything with shell, so no crabs, crayfish, prawns or crustaceans of any kind,” she adds.
Even while following kosher laws, the community has imbibed local customs, one of which is to avoid mixing non-vegetarian ingredients with milk. “Unlike meat, in kosher laws, fish is considered a neutral ingredient. Hence it can be cooked with milk. But the Hindus in the Konkan villages don’t mix the two. So the Bene Israel community in India has adapted to this custom,” Lentin explains.
The Cochini Jews have made similar adjustments to their culinary repertoire. In this smallest of the diasporic Jewish communities, the first few settlers made the lush Malabar coast their home around 2,000 years ago, “landing there as sailors in King Solomon’s fleet to purchase spices, animals and precious metals. Their songs and traditions tell of settlements in places like Paloor and Cranganore after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 BCE, although the recorded history begins from 1000 CE,” writes Bala Menon, the Toronto-based co-author of the book Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine Of The Cochin Jews, in a December 2014 article.
Besides incorporating spices, curry leaves and coconut in their food, the Cochini Jews even created new dishes with local fish—all the while observing their kosher laws. Menon says one of their signature dishes is the chuttulli meen, a pan-fried fish made with shallot paste.
In some diaspora communities, fish is also a subject of worship. The hilsa or the pallo is considered significant as the vehicle of the deity Jhulelal by the Sindhi community, which moved from the banks of the Indus, now in Pakistan to Maharashtra, and other parts of the world, after Partition. Popular belief in the fishermen community in Sindh is that this fish variety is not born with a muscular sinew. When it swims against the current, it gains muscle mass and a certain sheen. A 2016-Scroll piece states: "...in the Zinda Pir Shrine of Sukkur (a shared monument of Muslims and Hindus till very recently), Palla go to pay respect to its “Murshid” (revered spiritual guide). Mohana fishermen on the Indus maintain that it is here that the Palla gets its shimmering silver glow and “a red dot on its forehead”. Before visiting the Sukkur Zinda Pir Shrine, it is an “OK tasting” black fish. But swimming upstream to Sukkur, even till Jamshoro, gives them the heavenly fragrance, silvery visage and the unique taste."
Alka Keswani, one of the best-known proponents of Sindhi cuisine and founder of the blog Sindhi Rasoi, has adapted a unique and old way of making fish to the oven-style cooking of Mumbai. Called wadi ji macchi, the whole hilsa used to be stuffed with an onion-garlic mixture and tangy tamarind juice, wrapped in a roll of dough, buried in sand in Sindh and cooked. “People would bury it while going to work and unearth it on the way back. I now make this in the oven,” she says.
When many members of the Sindhi community moved to Mumbai, they stayed in barracks and many couldn’t afford expensive varieties such as the pomfret. So they started using fish like bangda, rohu and surmai. “Back in Sindh, we had around 16-17 varieties of freshwater fish, some of which I don’t even know the English names of. Very little record exists. On moving to Maharashtra, we started cooking local fish with our typical Sindhi green masala. The bangda, for one, became a Sunday speciality to be eaten with a jowar bhakri, or dodoh as it is called in Sindhi, and tidali dal, which is a mix of green urad, split green mung dal and chana dal. The paplet was reserved for special occasions such as the visit by a son-in-law,” she explains.
There are several other instances of flavours of a diaspora community seeping into the flavours of the region. Goan cuisine, for instance, is redolent with the flavours and techniques employed by the Portuguese and their descendants. According to Odette Mascarenhas, the cookbook author-historian who has written books such as The Culinary Heritage Of Goa, fish was part of the Portuguese diet even in the medieval period. “So, it was easier to adapt to the species here. The pomfret, a very tasty variety, went well with the tweaked recipes of raechado and caldin. It became possible to retain continental bakes and grills with white sauce et al,” she explains. Even here, the pomfret was the choice of the prosperous, with the less affluent opting for mackerel. “Perhaps this was the subtle line demarcating the status of families—a very traditional medieval Iberian culture,” adds Mascarenhas.
The Portuguese tradition of sun-drying fish seeped into the cuisine of the East Indian community in Maharashtra as well. Gresham Fernandes, the culinary director of Impresario Handmade Restaurants, who is from the community, remembers his grandparents making a lot of mackerel, dried bombil, tuna and shark pickle. During the monsoon, crabs would be gleaned off the fields, while black pomfret, instead of the silver one, would be eaten. Summer would bring in skate, which would be cooked with dried and fermented green mango in a curry. “Ghol was the fish of choice for occasions, with every internal organ cooked like a tripe. The silver ribbon fish is something I love, both in its dried and fresh form. Mudskippers and sea snails were lovely but now are rarely seen,” he says.