BENGALIS, YOU’D hear people say, are born to eat fish. This is perhaps truer than the other aphorism: all Bengalis are communists.
My wife, for one, is a fish out of water when it comes to eating a bone-filled (boneful, if you may, as opposed to boneless) fish. And I know at least 40 other Bengalis who either hate fish or are too scared to try them after a traumatic bone-in-the-throat experience. They often wonder why some of the ‘aquatic pricks’ have unnecessary bones in the flesh apart from the vertebral column.
But Bengalis – many east and northeast Indian communities too – do take to fish as a duck takes to water, and they make no bones about insisting a fish dish is vegetarian.
I love fish – raw (sushi), boiled, fried, bland, spicy, grilled, roasted, burnt, mashed, fermented and dried – as long as someone cooks it for me. This proves I don’t intend to bore you with one of those culinary posts.
I have instead chosen to share with you what I have more or less mastered – the art of deboning a fish while eating. It’s not much of an art, but the three-letter word makes the mundane sound exotic. And it makes me feel like a big fish.
My wife has two ways of tackling bone-filled fishes the length of an adult palm or smaller. She either deep-fries to make them ultra crisp or makes a series of deep incisions to take the threat out of the bones inside.
But eating a toasted or decapitated fish is so unchallenging; it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And I have never been a fish out of water, at least not when a fish out of pond, stream, river or sea needs to be devoured.
I don’t need to debone a palm-sized or smaller fish while eating. The entire skeleton, crushed by the molars, follows the flesh to the stomach. But there are times when you don’t feel like ingesting the calcium in fish-bone avatar. For such times, you need to know how to separate the bones from the flesh.
My talent found expression at a farewell party for a commander of the army’s Tezpur-based 4th Corps. On the menu was vaapa ileesh, a mustard-loaded steamed delicacy, instead of the standard rohu or katla drowned in a syrupy saalan (gravy) borrowed from the same stock that yields mutton, chicken or matar paneer.
“How do you manage such a dangerous fish?” the commander asked, as if I were a queer fish. I grabbed the opportunity to lecture a Lieutenant General on something I was presumably better at.
“There are several ways of dealing with a stubborn, prickly fish,” I said. “The two-hand technique, for instance, is for novices. This entails holding a chunk of fish in one hand and using the forefinger and thumb of the other to pull out the bones. If you gain in confidence, try the hand-teeth technique in which your incisors take over the bone-extrication job from the thumb-forefinger duo.”
The Lieutenant General gulped as I continued, “The toughest but fastest is the tongue technique. You simply put a chunk of fish, like this hilsa, in your mouth and use the tongue to separate the bones from the flesh.”
The army officer, embroiled in Mumbai’s Adarsh housing scam later on, probably sensed I was fishing for compliments. “Interesting, but you can keep your techniques to yourself. I have other fish to fry,” he said. “Besides, I am a vegetarian.”
Fish and non-vegetarian? Go tell that to a Bengali, or an Assamese, or a Manipuri.