Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Following Fish

remarkable debut, first travelogue of its kind, covering eight states along the coastline

Penguin Books India

is proud to publish

Following Fish

Travels along the Indian Coast

by Samanth Subramanian

‘This is a travel book like no other—inspired in its conception and marvelously skilful in its execution… A stunning debut by a hugely gifted writer’—Ramachandra Guha

In a coastline as long and diverse as India’s, fish inhabit the heart of many worlds — food of course, but also culture, commerce, sport, history and society. Journeying along the edge of the peninsula, Samanth Subramanian reports upon a kaleidoscope of extraordinary stories.

In nine essays, Following Fish conducts rich journalistic investigations: among others, of the famed fish treatment for asthmatics in Hyderabad; of the preparation and the process of eating West Bengal’s prized hilsa; of the ancient art of building fishing boats in Gujarat; of the fiery cuisine and the singular spirit of Kerala’s toddy shops; of the food and the lives of Mumbai’s first peoples; of the history of an old Catholic fishing community in Tamil Nadu; of the hunt for the world’s fastest fish near Goa.

Throughout his travels, Subramanian observes the cosmopolitanism and diverse influences absorbed by India’s coastal societies, the withdrawing of traditional fishermen from their craft, the corresponding growth of fishing as pure and voluminous commerce, and the degradation of waters and beaches from over-fishing.

Pulsating with pleasure, adventure and discovery, and tempered by nostalgia and loss, Following Fish speaks as eloquently to the armchair traveler as to lovers of the sea and its lore.

Penguin Rs. 250

About the author

First by circumstance and subsequently by choice, Samanth Subramanian is a journalist. He studied journalism at Pennsylvania State University and international relations at Columbia University. By preference, he has gravitated towards the long-form, narrative version of journalism—waning today, but still rewarding and revealing to both writers and readers. He has written, among other publications, for Mint, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, The National and The Hindu. This is his first book.
An excerpt from the book, on the author's hunt for the perfect Mangalorean fish curry:

To attempt to write with enthusiasm about food, I have discovered, requires two great qualities: the ability to eat with a Catholic, voluminous appetite, and the ability to eat out alone. The first is a purely physical constraint. A. J. Liebling, the emperor of gourmandizing writers, once pointed out that the average day presented, to the members of his tribe, only two opportunities for really extensive fieldwork: lunch and dinner.‘They are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol,’Liebling wrote. ‘They are indispensable, like a prize fighter’s hours on the road.’ (If his monumental waistline was not proof enough that Liebling practised what he preached, his accounts of his meals are; at one lunch, with a friend, he consumed a whole trout with butter, a Provencal meat stew, and a young, roasted guinea hen, with the appropriate wines and a bottle and a half of champagne. Then, presumably, there was dessert.) But even a weak appetite can be cultivated and expanded, if not to Lieblingian proportions then at least to a point of modest adventurousness. The ability to dine out alone, however, seems to be like the ability to curl your tongue—either you have it or you don’t. Those who don’t, tell me that it is just an insuperable mental block. I once heard of a software engineer, on deputation in the United States, who worked late hours and came back tohis hotel well after room service had ceased room servicing. The coffee shop downstairs was open all night, but so reluctant was our friend to sit in a restaurant by himself and eat a sandwich that he simply skipped dinner. For the entire month.Fortunately, I have always been made of tougher material; nothing would induce me to skip dinner. Often, in fact, when I’ve been travelling, I’ve actually preferred to eat alone, and not only because it enables a silent, more intimate communion withmy food. A restaurant, particularly during a weekday afternoon, is like a finger on the pulse of a town. People come in with distinct agendas, even if the agenda is not to have one. They make business deals, argue over sports and politics, court each other,ignore each other, spend time with family, suffer the company of colleagues, or, like me, sit in a corner by themselves and watch it all over the top of a newspaper. And in the manner of a primitive cultural anthropologist, I lap it up in fascination, convinced that I am seeing the life of the town unfold in front ofme. Maybe I am; or maybe I’m just seeing people eat lunch.The only major disadvantage to eating in solitude, especially in a town that one doesn’t know very well, is figuring out where to eat. Asking in your hotel will only earn you a warm recommendation for the hotel’s own restaurants. Asking the wrong people—and it’s impossible to know who the wrong people are until you’ve eaten in the places they suggest—will lead you to the sort of food they think you want to eat, rather than the food they would themselves eat, which is also the food you really want to eat. On a vacation, of course, the joys of wandering around and of serendipitous discovery are all very well. But it must be most disheartening, for food writers as well as serious gourmands,to come awayfrom a place only to discoverthat they had been sucked in by a succession of tourist-trap restaurants, all the while ignoring the authentic, wholly brilliant eatery just next door to their hotel.This was the position I found myself in on my first afternoon in Mangalore. I had taken an overnight train from Cochin,waking just in time to see the pastels of morning wash over the serene beginnings of the Konkan Coast. The half-light conferred a magic upon otherwise ordinary sights. Sitting next to the window, I gawked at everything that passed by me—deserted sports fields; immaculate little station platforms; ordered brickhouses painted in colours that would have looked garish in the city but that looked merely cheerful here; grove after grove of coconut trees; an occasional stream or backwater. And ever so suddenly, like a flash of benediction, a view of the open sea, separated from my train only by a thin ribbon of land. Mangalore seemed sleepy when I got off the train, and it seemed sleepy when I left my hotel in search of lunch. I was to learn, over the course of my days there, that it was a town that seemed sleepy right through the week, as if just walking itsrolling, undulating streets rocked its residents into drowsiness.Its restaurants displayed such a pleasing lack of business drivethat they seemed almost anachronistic. One restaurant that Is potted, called Hotel Kudla, had used the excuse of on going roadwork in the area to down shutters indefinitely—even though the restaurant’s front door remained perfectly accessible.I walked around for half an hour, looking for a place to eat,before the February sun began to feel more uncomfortable than warm. My usual markers weren’t working in Mangalore. I triedto peek into restaurants to see if I could spot groups of locals,but every dining hall was uniformly empty. I pondered the names of the restaurants, trying to figure out whether they sounded generically touristy or specifically Mangalorean, but I got nowhere with that either. Finally, out of a desperate desire for shade, I ducked into a building, descended a flight of fire-escape stairs, and in the basement of the Hotel Dakshin, I ordered my first fish curry in Mangalore. I had come to Mangalore expecting to fall completely in lovewith its fish curry, but I lusted instead, for much of my time there, after another dish, before I rediscovered my original love on the very morning of my departure. I had eaten the signature curry only once before, years ago, and I remember being entranced by its silky gravy, smooth and deep orange and full of flavour—very much the opposite, in fact, of Kerala’s toddy shopmeen curry, which was pungent and overwhelming, and which broke apart into its oil and non-oil layers upon standing for evena few seconds. To my palate, the Mangalore curry was the superior one, and I expected this to be a joyful, glorious reunion.But it didn’t begin well, or perhaps my hopes were set too high. That first curry—turmeric-yellow from a certain angle, red from chilli powder from another—was watery and bland. In the middle of the dish, like an algae-covered rock jutting out of the sea, was a hump of bangda, or mackerel, glinting a silvery green under the light. Mackerel has a famously insistent taste,but this fish was shy and reclusive, as if it would have rather been at home with a good book. I hacked at it from various angles, but it remained dull and uncooperative.A possible reason revealed itself when I was presented with the bill: Rs 10 for the curry, and another Rs 10 for the dosa I hadordered with it. What kind of fish curry—in this day and age, ina restaurant in a prosperous town—cost Rs 10? I feared the answer. I’d read too much about how quickly mackerel spoiled,and about the scombroid food poisoning that followed rapidly,with its retinue of symptoms: dizziness, rashes, nausea, blurred vision. For the first time in my life, I put down a 50 per cent tip, because I had no smaller notes or coins. My mind reeling, and already feeling faintly ill in my imagination, I left the HotelDakshin and walked a dejected kilometre or so. Then, deciding that perhaps another meal would work as some consolation, I entered an eatery called Nihals, sat down, and called weakly for the fish of the day.More bangda curry arrived, with a serving of coarse red rice and a side of curried potato. But now things were looking up.The mackerel tasted fresher, although still not as distinctive as I expected it to be; its bath of gravy was smoother, speckled with mustard seeds and a whisper of ginger, but it still wasn’t as fierce as I wanted it. Recalling Liebling’s thesis of fieldwork opportunities, I ordered a bangda masala fry (garlic and coconut;crisped; skin blistered and peeling off like that of a banana; very good) and ate my way through this second lunch. When the bill came—Rs 42, which included Rs 30 for the fry—I began to understand and feel better about Mangalore’s prices.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast

by Samanth Subramanian
Penguin Rs.250

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