January 19, 2020


Smoked fish in the market | Photo by the writer
Smoked fish in the market | Photo by the writer

Salting fish is the oldest method known to man to preserve food. In pre-refrigeration days, salt was a much sought-after commodity, and the location of mines and salt deposits caused wars in many European coastal areas. In fact, the large-scale extraction and trade in salt is the first example of globalised commerce.

Now, the technique of salting fish has been largely displaced in the West by smoking. This is done by placing large slabs of fish in a thick wooden tube and running smoke over it. The warm smoke cooks the fish gently, over a few hours, and imparts a smoky flavour to it.

I have acquired a smoker that, while it isn’t the genuine article, nevertheless simulates the end product quite satisfactorily. This is a foot-long steel box with a tiny grill built into the base. You put in some charcoal powder at the bottom, small slices of fish on the grill, slide the box shut and put the contraption on a gentle fire on the stove. The heat causes the charcoal to release its smoke and cook the fish, and hey presto! You have smoked fish in 10 minutes.

A magical alchemy takes place when salt and wood smoke combine with fish. The warm smoke cooks the fish gently over a few hours and imparts a smoky flavour to it

Most beaches in Asia and Africa sell salted fish and, generally speaking, it is more expensive than the fresh variety. This price difference reflects the labour involved in processing the fish: from cleaning it to rubbing dry salt into every nook and cranny to replace the liquids that cause the fish to rot. But cost aside, many in Sri Lanka consider it a big treat. The fish is placed in hot water to soften it before cooking it in a curry.

The other evening, Nandi, our wonderful chef in Sri Lanka, turned out one of the finest starters I have had. She was taught this recipe by our friend Sunela Jayawardane, and I look forward to making it myself. Basically, you start with tiny dried fish, pour a bit of treacle from palm trees over it, and then sprinkle some pomegranate seeds over the dish. The dish comes together in an explosion of flavours and textures.

Some of my stepchildren were over recently, and I explained to them the difference between pulao and biryani, and mentioned the centuries-old controversy between Lucknow and Delhi over these two rice dishes. I admitted my personal preference for pulao, extolling its subtlety and fragrance. They urged me to make both and let them be the judges.

So on the first evening, I made the chicken biryani with saffron and rose water. The next day, it was the pulao and, even if I say so myself, it was fragrant and very gently spiced. All the spices had been placed in a muslin bag and simmered with the chicken until it was falling off the bone. After removing the meat, the rice was allowed to cook in the yakhni (or broth) until it was close to being done. The pan was then transferred on to a tawa and put on dum on a very low heat for around 15 minutes or so. When the rice was just done, it was served to the hungry multitude.

However, I am sorry to report that the consensus was that the biryani was better. Oh well, I shouldn’t have expected goras to appreciate fine Lucknavi cuisine to the extent I do. So it’s back to the kitchen...

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 19th, 2020