K and I on our way back from a play on a bright Saturday afternoon stumbled into a bookshop. As soon as I entered the bookshop I quietly escaped into the travelogue section and started flipping through the pages of “Following Fish”. True to the title, the author Samanth Subramanian follows the fish across the Indian coast and takes you on a tour from Bengal to Gujarat. Each chapter is devoted to the ways in which fish is much more about gastronomic delight. While it is as much about taste of fish, it is also about tasting cultures. This is why I would recommend this book to every readers of this blog. You don’t have to eat fish to love this book; you have to be curious about tasting cultures that dot the Indian coastline to enjoy this book.
The trail of fish begins with Bengal – and its most prized fish – Hilsa with a subtle indication of how this fish is much more than food. It is also about identity of East Bengal and West Bengal. Samanth Subramanian takes us through a whirlwind tour of the various fish markets of Kolkata before stopping and stumbling on the Ganga Hilsa. The author’s self reflexive account makes the book an interesting read. This is particularly so in the second chapter that documents the Bathini Goud’s festivities on thrusting live fish with secret medicine – a treatment for asthma that has become part of the state calendar in Hyderabad as it attracts thousands of people who come for this treatment.The chapter documents the medical treatment that is offered to thousands for free amidst belief and scepticism. Each of the chapter seamlessly weaves in local history, politics into the making and survival of cuisine. Samanth Subramaniam takes us through the world of Tuticorn to discuss in detail the history of conversion, the tension between the church and chieftain to tell us how Tuticorn, despite being the strong Portuguese stronghold retained their distinct cuisine. The gem dish of the region is Fish Podi- dried fish powder which is eaten with rice and dollops of ghee. The spicy trail of fish has just begin as the author takes us through the Kerala’s toddy shops and their treatment of fish and I already have my eyes set on the Alleppey shop mentioned in the book in my next visit to Kerala, followed by the stunning revelation of the President of the Managlore Fishermen’s Cooperative, Secretary of National Fish Workers Federation and of the Coastal Karnataka Fishermen Action Committee that he does not eat fish as the author is treated to the Mangalore fish curry in his house. The author then winds off his fishing trail through his accounts on angling, and his accounts of fishermen in Goa who has taken to other professions because of depleting fishes in Goa’s coastline due to overfishing. The author then takes us to the hustle bustle of the Sassoon Dock in Bombay with his guide Yeshi followed by a stopover at the shrine of Mumbadevi Temple in Zaveri Bazaar to a nice hot meal of fish curry at Anantashram ( one of the remaining khanawals) , a peep into the culinary affair in a Koli household and finally taking us through the markers of Gomanatak and Malvani cuisine. The final chapter stops with the crafting of fishing boats in Gujarat- which supplies much of the fish that finds its way to fish markets across India and in our kitchens and is also renowned for crafting fishing boats.
The book manages to unravel the history, geography of “fish” beyond its gastronomic qualities which makes it an interesting read.
Book Review: Subramaniam, Samanth. 2010. Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast. New Delhi: Penguin Books.