29 March 2009

Philosophy, Gertrude Stein, and Fish

Hi My Dear Reader!

Thank you for your get-well wishes to me, for your waiting, for being understanding and patient. You know, just as I was negotiating my stomach-flue and other petty grievances it occurred to me that I had fallen ill for a reason. Namely, I got so agitated lately with fears and doubts and worries and pursuits to get what I still don’t own, that I had forgotten what I already have. So I had to be reminded again what it is all about. I was forced, so to speak, to pause in order to re-appreciate, through pains and all, the simplicity of being well and able to walk, see, smell, hear, touch and talk. This is what really matters. For this I am grateful.

And now, why don’t we feast, humbly? (Apologies for an almost picture-less story: the battery on my photo camera went irreversibly flat!)


Evening, 19pm.

“Hi! Please chop up a medium onion. I’m on my way - will arrive in a few minutes!”

This is how my Indian friend Vijay usually speaks to me over the phone. Really, who needs long greetings, how-are-you’s and other conventional conversation-openers these days?

An hour later I heard a knock on my door.

“Where were you? The chopped onion may well have sprouted up before you have finally come!” I reprimanded Vijay for being so late while he processed further in my kitchenette, and plunked down on the table a carcass of smoked mackerel. You see, the guy has been rather self-assertive as of late. I reckon it’s because he has finally finished his MA in Western philosophy. On a footnote: when asked why he chose to study Western philosophy, Vijay said, ‘I wanted to know the difference between how people think in the Orient and the Occident.’ Globalisation!

Obviously, by now Vijay has accumulated tomes of wisdom that gives him authority to equally drool over Saint Augustine of Hippo and Karl Marx, as well as to create fusion dishes in the kitchen (I especially love this part).

Before I claim my point, let me digress a little. I come from a family where a smoked fish is considered a final, cooked product, that is, you don’t want to cook it further. At least, nobody ever thought of such undertaking in my family. Isn’t smoked fish cooked yet by definition? Apparently, not for Vijay the philosopher! Because this is what he did. He grabbed a heavy-bottomed medium pan out of a kitchen cabinet, and said that he was going to poach the smoked mackerel he had brought. Then he added that did I care to chop another – fresher – onion, I was welcome; if not, he’d prefer I don’t question his authority. Why guys with a completed degree in Western philosophy sound so highbrow?

It was a day when I coined a phrase ‘fish consciousness’. Meaning: be quiet and watch. So watch I did. But after a certain moment though, when a whiff of garam masala combined with a smokiness of the mackerel reached my nose and stirred my senses, I got verbose as hell. I remember I even rose on a chair and announced to the audience (that would be Vijay alone) that a Stein-esque oration is in my plans:

“A fish is a smoked fish is a cooked fish is a fish fish fish fish. Finish cook smoked fish. Hunger I am hungry are you hungry?”

“Are you all right?” my friend looked at me, his brow crinkled.

“Of course, I am. Poached smoked mackerel is all I need.”

“When did you go for a walk last time? You need more oxygen, I think,” Vijay expressed his concerns about my health, stirring the onion.

“Didn’t you like my improvisation a la Gertrude Stein?”

“Hm,” Vijay reached for an empty glass, filled it with water and handed it to me.

“She in fact screwed up the rules and pump her writings full of freedom and oxygen: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. It is so non-sensical that it is beautiful. Your poached smoked fish is non-sensical too.” I got off the chair, lifted a saucepan lid, took a small bite and added, “And absolutely delicious, by the way.”

Smoked mackerel, Indian style

1 medium smoked mackerel
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
¼ tsp garam masala powder
¼ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp garlic powder (or 1 garlic clove, finely chopped)
2 small chillis, crushed
juice of ½ lemon
1 ½ cups water

[Correction: after replicating the recipe on my own, I found that 1/2 cup water (!) will do]
Olive oil for cooking

1. With a sharp knife, divide the fish into equal parts. [Vijay used the mackerel’s tail and head, but I don’t think these parts are really crucial for flavours (after all it’s not a fish stock that we’ll make), unless you want wholesomeness on your plate.]

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, cumin, garam masala, garlic (powder) and chillis. Cook until the onion turns translucent but not brown.

3. At this point, add the water and the lemon juice to the saucepan mix well and bring to a boil. Low the heat to a bare simmer and add the fish. Cover with a lid and cook for 3-4 mins. Don’t stir - the fish is already soft enough and easily breakable. Keep the heat low so that the water remains hot but doesn’t boil.

4. Switch off the heat. Keep the fish covered for another 10-15 mins to infuse it with flavours. (You don’t need to salt the fish, for it is quite salty by definition).

5. Serve with steaming basmati rice.

A note: I highly recommend to sop up the fragrant fish gravy from your plate with a piece of naan or, why not, country bread.

Honestly, if I did not know, I would never guess that it was smoked mackerel we used: once poached in all these spices, the fish doesn’t have a very pronounced smoky flavour any more. Instead, it becomes juicy, and gets a more complex, deeper taste as well as aroma.


Toni said...

What a strange and beautiful idea! Like you, I would have considered smoked fish to be the finished product, not the starting place. This sounds scrumptious!

Anna said...

Haha! I love your Gertrude Stein performance! Would he make the same recipe with fresh fish? Why smoked?

Cinnamonda said...

Great story & great recipe! Yes, sometimes it is good to pause and re-appreciate the small, easily forgotten, but, oh, so important things in life!