Going coastal with Samanth Subramanian


Did this for Timeout Delhi

Journalist Samanth Subramanian’s travelogue Following Fish does a circuit of India’s coastline, exploring the history, habits and environmental concerns of the country’s fishing communities. Three chapters of Following Fish – written from Bengal, Kerala and Mangalore – are dedicated to the eating of fish. Subramaniam talks about gods, gravies and why he thinks that “if Bengali cuisine was Wimbledon, the Hilsa will always play on Centre Court”.

Of all the elements in India’s coastline, why did you choose to place fish at the heart of your book?

Fish comes very naturally at the heart of life on the coast, particularly if you’re living on the extreme edges of it. The traditional fishing communities have it not only at the heart of their diet but also their profession, and in a sense their religion, because their profession is or was often influenced by religion. They would pray to get a good catch, so their culture is influenced by that to a large extent. It turned out to be the most natural link if you’re looking at the Indian coast.

What is it about hilsa, and other fish, that Bengalis make it their culinary obsession?

I think it’s just because they get damn good fish! For a long, long time, Bengal got the best fish in India
As a result, it was woven very, very strongly into their rituals and their culture. The ilish is a special fish in the sense that it’s seasonal, or rather it was seasonal and had an elusive quality to it. Also, its various textures and its strong flavor make it quite unlike any other. It’s enormously complexly constructed, too, and it really is an acquired taste. Bengalis have this superiority complex about ilish; they think that, since it’s their fish, only they can eat it well and appreciate it.

Curry seems to be integral to the dishes you ate. Did you deliberately choose curry-based dishes or do they reflect a common preference across the coastal regions?

The method of preparing fish by curry is, surprisingly, very common across the coastline of India. Gravy-based dishes became very common as you travelled down south, where the cuisine tends to get a lot more liquidy. It was not a conscious decision on my part but I guess it comes up a lot when you eat your way across the coast of India.

What sort of alcohol did you discover goes best with a coastal fish dish?

The most obvious answer has to be toddy in Kerala. If you get a good fish dish and some toddy in a “shaaap”, you could just sit there for hours; it’ll be nightfall before you know it. And if you go in the morning or early afternoon, the toddy is very sweet, almost like buttermilk with an acidic taste to it. The fish is kind of fresh too so if you go to a good shaaap, they will fry it well for you. So you can just sit there and enjoy the two…it’s a mind-blowing combination!