If I want to revisit my momo memories in Nepal I want to own a perfect “Bazarer” bag to carry my fish purchases. A perfect “bazarer bag” can make all the difference in the kitchen. In Kolkata, despite the water-logging problem I grew up watching my fathers and uncles take out their rusted bicycles during rainy season with their “bazarer bags”.
Anybody familiar with the kitchen set up of a Bengali household will find these nylon bags beneath the sink . Two bags are neatly hanged on two separate hangers. One dedicated for the amish( non- vegetarian) raw ingredients and the other for niramish bazaar( primarily the vegetables). Onions and garlic usually came in a separate cloth bag.
As a kid my favourite subject for drawing competitions was Indian market place. In this pictorial representation of the “bazaar” I often drew a man standing next to a fish-seller selling fish of all sizes and kinds with a bag from where the greens would pop out and the bloated bottom of the bag had stacks of potatoes, and other vegetables.
Though shopping malls and organised retail outlets have made an entry into the Kolkata, nothing can beat the vibrancy of walking through hordes of fish lined up in series of rows with enough space for the customer to stand, order and take the freshly cut fish in their “machcher bag”. Machch is the Bengali word for Fish. I always had a fetish for carrying the “fish bag” whenever I accompanied my father to “Manicktala Market” or “Rani Rashmoni Market” (two noted markets of North Kolkata).
Our secret trips to Manicktala market was accompanied by a brisk breakfast of Kachori ( fried bread) and alur tarkari( potato curry) in a sweet shop by the name Thakurer Dokan in Rashmoni Bazaar, Beleghata. If you manage to reach the shop by 9.30 am one was sure to find some space in the bench which has been there since the inception of the shop. The Kachories are made of Biuli Dal and their Potato Curry is made with freshly ground ginger, cumin and secret touch of love. The un-peeled small cubes of potatoes are thrown into the big kadai and all the spices are added, with a generous touch of turmeric, adequate salt and a pinch of sugar to finish this simple curry which can never be reproduced in our kitchens. After having this brisk breakfast and packing two jalebis( fried Indian sweet) to satiate my sweet appetite we headed towards Manicktala Market– a paradise for the fish lovers.
The enticing part about Manicktala market is the smell of various kinds of fish. Whenever guests came to visit us in winters I anxiously waited for my father’s approval to take me to the fish-y den; where fishes were sold and traded in thousands, and even more. My father believed that you could get Fresh Prawns ( Galda Chingri) at any time of the year in Manicktala and the best variety of Hilsa, Topse and Morola can only be found in Manicktala. My mother for all practical reasons hated when my father bought chotto mach (small sized fish) like Morola and Putti because it took her almost an hour to clean these fishes or to supervise the cleaning done by our mashi ( aunty who helped us with cleaning and washing).
My best days would be when my father ordered Bhetki fish fillet.I used to stand next to my father with wide eyes watching the fish seller take out his bonti(curved blade rising out of a narrow, flat, wooden base) to attack the head and remove the scales and then with the swift move of a “fish- knife” ( unlike our fancy knives; it is a huge knife which looks like a ruler from a geometry box) he used to de-bone the fish and chop the fish fillets according to my father’s requisition.
Like an inquisitive intern I used to imaginatively chop the Bhetki fish using my imaginary knife and then waited patiently for him to pack the fish fillets in a white plastic bag and the Bhetki Kanta ( leftovers from the Bhetki Fish) in a black polythene bag so that the “boudi” (meaning sister-in- law; my mother) could conveniently wash and refrigerate. Another separate small bag to carry the fish head to be cooked with Greens was neatly packed and given to us.
As a kid I thought my mother and father knew these fish-sellers because my father used to coax him to clean the fish properly so that his “boudi” should not get upset. And often fish –sellers called out to the half-sleep “babus” who visited the bazaars by telling them “ Fresh machch niye jaan; boudi khushi hoben” ( Take fresh fish. Boudi will be happy). For a long time I wondered how the fish sellers knew what the boudis wanted in the kitchen. How could they sit miles away with their fishes and know whether boudis wanted small fish like Morola, shrimps to add to the saag ( greens) or prepare rohu/ katla jhol. This long distance relationship between the fish seller brother in law and the middle class bhadramahila boudi always fascinated me. These were the days before the mobile phones acted as the mediating device between the babu’s wife and the fish seller.
Till one day I discovered the truth of this relationship when my mother was irritated with my father for buying some fish which she did not like she commented that my father’s brother ( i.e., the fish-seller) should stop from making assumptions about what his sister in law likes to cook. At this moment I interrupted and said that “You are being rude. He really likes you maa (Bengali word for mother). He often de-bones and removes the scales without charging a penny because he does not want to inconvenience his “boudi”. I thought justice was done. Well, this further aggravated the tensions. My mother was furious that my father had some secret talk about my mother’s non-preference for some fishes with a fish-seller.
Time passes by. After completing my years of internship under my father I have attained the “eye”, “smell”, and “feel” of what a good fish could look like. Whenever I visit the slightly not too familiar yet close to a “bazaar” of my childhood in Delhi and the fish sellers assure me of the quality of the fish and often suggests recipes and packs the fish in plastic bags I miss the “Machcher” Bag of my childhood days. Every time I return home with packets filled with fishes I remember the ways in which my Rashmoni Bazaar fish seller in Kolkata would remind me on my way back to office to carry the Machcher Bag as he would be supplying me the best priced Bhetki, Topshe or Hilsa. I miss him. Everytime I prepare a checklist of things to buy from the market , I wonder if I would find a perfect machcher bag just like my childhood days.