I love it when I am in Mangalore ? the town in which I grew up, went to school and spent my childhood. Most of that period of memory a fifty years in the past, spent in Sukh Sagar the family home in Karangalpady Kodiyalbbail ? when parents were still around living in Mangalore; and some more in the boarding house at my alma mater St. Aloysius? ? when they moved bag and baggage to the cooler climes of the western ghats. On a recent visit yet again, I found Mangalore not changed in many ways. One of them, its delightful fish eating ways.
When we were children, the noon meal was reserved for a fish menu and the evening one for meat. The staple rice and curry, for the mid-day meal. Curry meant a fish curry; and fish meant mostly seafood, not from the fresh waters of the abounding rivers, rivulets and ponds (a fare not completely ignored either). Each day reserved for a different variety of fish, depending on the season and the catch available in the market. Tharle (sardines), Bangude (mackerels), Iswonn (seer), Rounce (Indian-Salmon), Sanctter (catfish) Kaanne (Ladyfish), Sscannaki (kingclip), Yerlio (whitings ? some call it silverfish too), Shevto, Sondalle, Pampletan (pomfret), Sunkgtaan (prawns), Kurlio (crabs), Khube (clams) and a plethora of shell-fish? whatever. The variety, unlimited.
And if at the evening table too there had to be fish, then it?d be the fried fare ? gorgeously fried chilli-red on a flat pan in shallow oil for a well-masala?d crusty cover, with the flesh inside still soft fibrously brittle and breakable, and dry, not oily or leathery. How they managed that, well? ask the Mangaloreans! Only they managed such incredible fish frying and cuisine feats! And fish it invariably was, when the evening table stuck to the staple congee. Chapattis on the menu, then a meat dish inevitably thrown in. And believe me, Mangaloreans were, and are great meat eaters too ? especially of the porky delights!
But what was also staple then for most homes was congee in the mornings ? at the breakfast table too. So different varieties of fish fare for the day?s first meal ? Mangaloreans then believed in three square meals a day ? whatever else be there or not, in the form of a variety of chutneys for nishthen or side-dish. And to match the sharpness of the chutneys, in fish it had to be attailly-kadi, which the Goans call kalchi-kadi ? the previous day?s left over fish curry cooked dry to a paste in smoked earthenware handis; and/or kharen (dried shark or a variety of salt-fish) fried. Fresh clam cooked in its own soup thel-piao style without massala was a favourite too and the occasional fresh garden vegetables cooked in similar thel-piao as a not-too-boring but sobering stabilising break now and again.
For so much fishy fare for a whole population of the city and its neighbourhood, fish had to be in plenty. More importantly, one needed to be well versed in the art of buying and dressing fish. Early in life one learnt to sniff and haggle, to develop a sharp sense of smell, and to bargain with the fisherwomen who formed the bulk of fish vendors. Or else end up with not just a lighter purse, but also inedible fish gone high in the humid tropical heat. And also in early life one learnt the actual art of cleaning fish and carving fish, without wasting its precious head and cargo ? an art eminently in the domain, I believe, only of the Mangalorean ladies? many faceted repertoire.
Unique to Mangalore, perhaps in other coastal markets too, is the system of selling fish by ?quantities? and not by weight (in ?kg?s) as is done elsewhere. By tradition and practice, both the fisherwomen and the consuming public along the coastal belt have developed a keen sense of fixing the rate by looking at the ?lot? of the fish, pre-arranged by size and/or in numbers, the rate also variable depending on the fish catch of the day, and its quantum availability at a given time. So no one took a chance ? it was only the most experienced that stepped out to the market to venture a hand at buying fish.
But experience came by education. And education on this came to me as would have to any child in my town, much before we stepped into our age of a double figure. When elders and others more adept in the art were busy perhaps with unavoidable and more important pre-occupations, and it fell to my lot to secure from the market something to make the family table interesting, yours truly used to be packed off with a four-anna or a six-annna jingle in the pocket to the fish market, to return with enough that would not only gladden the family stomachs for the day but also carry over to the next.
Many are the times I have faltered, stumbled, and faced the wrath of those around the table for a lousy job done, for being rooked and cheated into paying more for a measly small lot, or for carrying home stale fish, or the thorny-bony pedi instead of the like looking tharle?.and the occasional well-earned kudos for an excellent buy that soared the contented family?s feelings high. I learnt quick, for that was the only opportunity I got to hire a cycle clandestinely, something that faced parental sanctions and taboo for reasons of safety on the road, but understandably the craze of any kid at that age. Not only did I have to return with a bounty that satisfied the family palates and raised no eyebrows on account of quality, quantity of fish or the amount paid, but also the need to save the half-anna it then cost to hire the junior cycle for the half-hour marketing stint involved. So the need to hone my fish-buying skills, and be good at it!
The family of course, had puzzled through it all: how did I manage all in such super fast speed. That remained my secret always!
Copyright ? Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sector-23, Gurgaon-122017
Author: Maxwell Pereira- India