Nani, my maternal grandmother lived in this huge house. Haveli, as it’s called in hindi. Tall ceilings with elaborate and intricate crown moldings, old and dusty but still royal chandeliers hanging in the family room which was large enough to accomodate not one but several families. Aged but giant and still strong pillars, holding the walls and the roofs together, told stories of the good times they had witnessed in the past.
My Nana apparently was a big shot in his days. I never got to know him because he passed away early when my mum, youngest of the nine siblings was still in her teenage. But I always heard stories of his generosity, tender heartedness and royalty. He built this house to nestle his family and his siblings and the haveli was also the center point of the village. Now dusty and ill maintained without him being around, the house still nestled a big part of his siblings’ family and my Nani.
A simple stout lady, with a wheatish complexion and soft skin, always laced in a crisp white cotton saree and head covered with her anchal (corner of the saree). I have memories of her sitting on her cot placed at a corner of her humongous backyard, which would have been just washed so the marble floor was still wet and slippery. She, cutting vegetables picked fresh from her kitchen garden, with her eyes stuck on my cousins and I playing there. She did not speak much but was always present in all her grace. The whole house was practically open to everyone. People would come asking for food, money and what not and never went empty handed. But there was this room she had to herself. No one could enter except for her and one of her helps whose job was to keep things properly dusted and in place.
One day while playing all by myself in the backyard, because my older cousins wouldn’t let me play with them, I remember her calling my name. Anni, she would call me. “Come here, I wanna show you something”, she said. I went, half hesitant and half curious. She wrapped her wrinkly soft arm around my shoulder and took me to her room. We pushed open that tall, heavy teak door and entered this room which was always hidden behind this door painted green, with some of the paint chipping off. The room wasn’t as huge as the others in the house and was darker than others too with just one window on the side. Decorated idols of her god, some made with marble and some with precious metal, were sitting on a desk in one corner and an elegant bed made with heavy wood in the middle. She sat me on the bed and pulled a heavy metal box from under. It made a scratching sound which hurt my ears but I tried to not react. “You know Anni, I’ve been saving a lot of things from the past in this box your nana bought me a long time back”, she said while trying to unlock the iron lock on it. “Here, take a look and pick what you like.” The 7 year old in me was just so overwhelmed by the room, this treasure box and just the presence of nani, that I couldn’t believe what she said to me. But I couldn’t let my nerves take away this opportunity from me. So I started digging. I do not now remember the things that were in that box but I do remember my heart skipping a beat when I saw a small hangbag peeking from under. Made with red and blue beads, with the design of a shinning star in the middle, not bigger than the size of my fist at that time. That was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I picked it immediately for I doubted nani will let me have it. “good choice”, she said and patted on my back with a broad smile and bright eyes. I do not know what led to this generosity that day but I do remember not feeling miserable for being left out by my cousins anymore. One of the best days that was!
I had a similar feeling the other day when I happened to find a few posts hidden in drafts section of my blog. Some of them as old as 5 years. For some reason or the other, they never got published but had memories which I thought I had forgotten about. Sharing one such recipe which is dear to my heart mostly because my nani, who grew up in a village on the border of the states of West Bengal and Bihar, used to cook a lot. Then she passed it on to my mum who then very proudly handed it down to me. In this particular kind of fish curry, shallow fried fish is cooked in a thin broth made of mainly ground mustard seeds. I’m just so elated that it is going to see the daylight now. Hope you like it!
2lbs sea bass (either buy cut steak from the market or cut whole cleaned fish into 1 1/2 -2 inch thick steaks like I did. Mum doesn’t discard anything and uses the head and tail et al.)
1 teaspoon + 3 – 4 tablespoons mustard oil (Mum shallow fries the fish in lesser oil. Feel free to deep fry for crispier fish.)
1 teaspoon + 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1teaspoon + 1/2teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorn
2 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 1/2 tablespoon coriander powder (mum uses it to thicken the gravy a bit. You can omit this if you like)
7-8 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 tablespoon panch foran
Wash fish thoroughly. Baste 1 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp salt, 1 tbsp flour and 1 tsp mustard oil thoroughly. Set aside for 30 minutes.
In a grinder grind together peppercorn, mustard, chili, garlic, coriander, chili powder. Set aside.
Heat rest of the mustard oil in a hot pan. Shallow fry the marinated fish, 4-5 pieces at a time, until crispy on the outside and cooked through.
Take the fish out of the pan.
In the same pan with leftover oil add panch foran. As they sputter add the prepared ground masala.
Stir for 5 seconds. Add salt to taste (keep in mind the fish is already marinated in salt so salt the curry accordingly). Add water approx. 2-3 cups .
Bring it to a nice boil until the oil separates.
Turn off the heat. Add fish. Cover with a lid. Let the fish and sauce have a little conversation for 5-10 minutes before serving them with hot steamed rice.