“Something smells good, Mom”, my eight year old son calls out over the music of “The Adventures of Tintin” that he is watching with his five year old sister. The smell interrupts my husband’s Saturday night semi-fugue state, induced by old Hindi movie songs, ghazals and single malt Scotch. My industrial grade Viking hood is doing the best it can, but is no match for the heady fragrance of dinner, cooking in bubbling oil on its way to a heavenly state of golden brown crispiness. I am frying Pomfret.
Wikipedia says pomfret is a perciform fish belonging to the family Bramidae. It is found in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. I say, they have no idea what Pomfret is.
Pomfret is my mother, announcing on a Saturday morning, that my brother and I were to watch out for and stop the local fishmonger as he made his way through the neighborhood. The object of our attention for the rest of the morning was a short, dark man with round eyes and a quick smile. His bushy mustache apologetically made up for a receding hairline. He usually wore a mundu, a long rectangular cotton garment worn at the waist, and a shirt, with a scarf-like piece of cloth wrapped around his head.. He would ride into our alley on a bicycle with a basket tied precariously to the back seat. He announced his presence with a loud horn – the sound a cross between a duck’s quack and a broken reed. It was in this basket, over a thin layer of ice, under dark green banana leaves, that he presented the manna from local rivers and the Arabian Sea, occasionally his prized catch, the pomfret. It is an exciting day for us because cooking fish at home was a show of culinary bravery for my mother. She had grown up with strictly vegetarian, staunch Hindu parents and had tasted meat only after she got married .She was adventurous enough to cook fish but was not confident about buying or cleaning it. That was Amma’s job. “Amma” is Malayalam for mother and to us, it seemed like the whole town called her Amma. She was a stern lady of indeterminate age, who worked in our house as a housemaid/translator/spreader of neighborhood information. As soon as the fishmonger stopped in front of our house, Amma was dispatched to do the needful. She wiped her strong and heavily wrinkled hands on her work cloth and walked up to him. She gave the man a once-over as if silently warning him against any mischief. Then she peered into the basket and moved back the banana leaves. She picked up the plumpest, whitest of the fish and gave it a good sniff. If it passed her olfactory test, its gills were pried open. If it was nice and pink inside, Amma gave the man a slight toothless smile and picked a few more. The care with which she picked fish for us made us feel like royal children, whose food was tested for poison before it was served. After the necessary payment was made, all of us followed Amma to the back of the house where she proceeded to clean and prepare the fish and hand it over to my mother for further processing.
Pomfret is my father, ordering fish for me, at every restaurant that we went to, even when it was the most expensive dish on the menu. The love on his face, having ordered the best dish for his favorite child, in my opinion, was returned with a grin on my face, when the waiter brought the plate of crisp golden fried fish, head intact, eyes open, garnished with red onion rings, chopped cilantro and a lemon wedge. For my brother and I, eating out at a restaurant was a luxury, a status symbol. To have a special dish ordered just for me was hence, a momentous achievement. Over time, the restaurants changed from a “dining hall” of five or six tables covered with white table cloths over worn out reddish brown carpets lit by shabby chandeliers to avant garde restaurants in five star hotels in Mumbai but the ritual never changed.
Pomfret is little fingers, peeling off the crisp skin to reveal firm white flesh held together by a skeleton of long bones. The fingers do not have find and remove tiny bones that hide inside other kinds of seafood. The fish has been fried whole, with two short slits on each side where the marinade of garlic, ginger and turmeric, green chilies, cumin, coriander and salt has made its way inside. The skin is a crispy golden brown, while the flesh has cooked in a fragrant steam of the marinade, giving it a flavor even the finickiest of eaters cannot ignore.
The smell reaches deep inside me, taking me back to the land where I grew up, thousands of miles away from this beautiful prairie that we now call home. It is the link from my childhood to the life that I am trying to create for my children. It inspires me to make memories with them, which they can turn to, when they grow up. I hope that this fine specimen of the Bramidae family thrives and multiplies for generations in the saline ocean waters so that my children can share the joy of a perfectly fried pomfret and steaming rice with their loved ones, for years to come.