Fishy Mangalore
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com


As I am writing this one, 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, in a family home in Karangalpady-Kodiyalbail when parents were still living in Mangalore, and some more in the boarding at St. Aloysius’ when they moved out bag and baggage to cooler climes in the western ghats and Bangalore. Now on a visit here yet again, I find Mangalore not changed in many ways. One of them, its delightful fish eating ways.

As children, the afternoon meal consisted of a fish menu and the evening one had meat. Staple rice and curry for the mid-day meal. Curry meant fish curry, and fish meant mostly seafood, not from the abounding rivers, rivulets and ponds (a fare not completely ignored either). Each day 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), Ssanctter (catfish), Kaane (ladyfish), Sscannakki (kingclip), Yerlio (whitings – some called these silverfish too), Shevto with its gaantt and peri, Sondalle, Pampletan (pomfret), Sungtaan (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 fried fare – gorgeously fried on a flat pan in shallow oil for a well massala’d crusty cover, with the still soft fibrously brittle and breakable flesh inside moistily dry, and not oily or leathery. How they managed that… well, ask the Managaloreans! Only they manage such incredible fish cuisine feats! And fish it invariably was, when the evening table stuck to staple congee. Chapattis on the menu, then a meat dish inevitably thrown in. Believe me, Mangaloreans were, and are, great meat eaters too!

But what was staple then for most homes was congee in the mornings – at the breakfast table too. Which meant different varieties of fish fare for the day’s first meal – Mangaloreans 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 called kalchi-kadi – the previous day’s left over fish curry cooked dry to a paste in smoked earthenware handis; and/or kharen (dried shark and a variety of salt-fish) fried. Fresh clam cooked in its own soup thel-piao style was among favourites too, and the occasional fresh garden vegetable cooked in similar thel-piao as a not-too-boring but sobering and stabilizing 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 fish too. Early in life one learnt to sniff and haggle – to develop a sharp sense of smell, and to bargain with 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.

Unique to Mangalore, perhaps in other coastal markets too, is the system of selling fish by ‘quantities’ and not by weight (by the kg) as 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 merely looking a the ‘lot’ of fish, pre-arranged by size and/or in numbers, the rate variable depending on the fish catch of the day and its quantum availability at a given point in time. So one took no chances. It was only the most experienced and not the novice, 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 failed, to face 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….At times also 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 a youngster’s safety on the road, understandably though 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 with 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 then had puzzled through it all: how did I manage it all in such super fast speed. That remained my secret till now!

900 words: 27 .06.2005: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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