Monday, July 30, 2012
Ilish, for the uninitiated, is a fish from the bangla hinterland. But she is not another fish in the sea to be simply dealt with; say with some sesame oil or tamarind (god, forbid!) or some onions or even tomatoes! Ilish, at least to me, is the queen among fishes. And, therefore, should be treated like one; with minimal seasoning and very little cooking so that her inner glow simply shines through and a mere brush with your lips can transport you to worlds that you only dreamt of.
Ilish to the bongs and hilsa to all non-bongs swims upstream during the monsoon to spawn. Though some dismiss her as a fish with just bones, it’s the discerning tongue that knows what it’s talking about or tasting! Ok, so much for fawning over the Ilish. Let’s get to the real story…
Though a lover of sea food, I don’t much care for the south Indian way of cooking fish, especially with gallons of tamarind and onions and what not! I think this way of cooking completely denatures the flesh and strips fish of its natural juices. It’s of course a different matter that I am also a lover of the Kerala cuisine thanks to my partner’s eternal love affair with Kerala. We’ll deal with that obsession on a different day.
So, back to ilish for now. Back in Delhi when I first heard of cooking fish with mustard, I was a little surprised by the novelty. And that’s because the poor mustard in the south doesn’t get beyond being sputtered or used as a filler in pickles. And of course I was filled with stories (by southies of course) about the strong, revolting flavor of the mustard. So, when presented with the Ilish in mustard sauce (slightly burned though…lovingly of course), I took my first bite rather gingerly. To say that I was in love with the woman who cooked that dish for me is of course an understatement! I was conquered! I couldn’t believe how just some mustard paste, mustard oil, and green chillies put together in a cooker could produce something so out of this world. That day, I was initiated into the beauty that was Ilish. Then, I slowly learned to cook it myself and cooked it at least a 100 times before leaving Delhi for good. And, Ilish joined the list of the many things, besides khadi kurtas, janpath, palika, kebabs, NSD plays, and winters, that I miss in Chennai.
After searching for Ilish for almost 3 long years, yesterday, at the fish shop, as my eyes fell upon the glittering scales, I almost shrieked at the guy and said, this is Ilish!. He just waved me off absentmindedly and said, yeah, so, you want it? For a split second, I stood there motionless suspended between reality and fantasy (reality being the price and fantasy, holding Ilish in my own hands!). I took it bracing up for jaw-dropping responses back home about the price. Well, that’s just a small price to pay for Ilish. Ain’t it?
So, humming a happy tune, I set off to the kitchen to make ilish. I had to use the sad weikfield mustard powder because white mustard is not available in Chennai, and I don’t quite like using the black mustard. The dishes I finally made were Ilish bhapa, Ilish paturi, and Ilish fry. Ilish bhapa is a gravy made with just mustard; paturi is made by wrapping Ilish in a banana leaf (from my garden ;)) and steaming it on a tawa or hot girdle, and the fry of course is with just turmeric and salt and importantly in mustard oil. After a long time, I found myself happy just cooking. It perhaps means good times are ahead…
A small note on the recipes…
Few pieces of Ilish
Some mustard powder (I used weikfield mustard sauce powder)
Few green chillies
Few tablespoons of mustard oil
Wash the fish, pat dry, and keep aside. In a bowl mix a generous amount of mustard powder (you should find this powder in nilgiris, the department store), turmeric, and salt. Take a couple of green chillies and grind them along with this powder, adding some water and some mustard oil. Use this mixture to marinate the fish well and keep aside. Taste the salt. (if you feel yucky tasting raw fish, you are on the wrong page…;)). Then, in a pressure cooker, add some mustard and sputter some finely chopped green chillies, then arrange the fish pieces neatly followed by two slit green chillies and very little water. Shut the lid, simmer, and leave for about 5-10 minutes and switch off.
Few pieces of Ilish
Some mustard powder (I used weikfield mustard sauce powder)
Few green chillies
Few pieces of coconut
Few tablespoons of mustard oil
Wash the fish, pat dry, and keep aside. In a bowl mix a generous amount of mustard powder, turmeric, and salt. Take a couple of green chillies and some pieces of coconut and grind them along with this powder, and some mustard oil. Do not add any water. Smear this on the fish and wrap them in banana leaves (if you have lots of banana leaf, you can simply fold them into each other or if you don’t have enough banana leaves, just secure them with tooth picks. You could also use turmeric leaves if you do not have banana leaves). Heat a tawa and arrange the banana packets, simmer, and keep turning them over sprinkling some mustard oil on all sides. It shouldn’t take anything more than 5-7 minutes to cook. What signals complete cooking is of course the shriveled look of the banana leaf packets.
2. Photos by Saravana Raja (http://saravanaraja.in/)
Friday, July 27, 2012
This was written exactly 10 long years ago when I still believed in many things; wrongly though. :) Found this buried in one of my old mails and sharing it here because not much has changed about the church even today. Please pardon some of my assumptions, especially about the evolution of castes or the gross misunderstandings of class as errors of enthusiasm…
Caste has always been intrinsic to the Indian society. But what is Indian about the Church—the ‘called out’ group? This, I have always asked the self-appointed interpreters of the Bible and myself. I found my answers through introspection and by speaking to people outside the walls of the church and never from the leaders who preach and decisively and interpret the Word of God.
These are leaders who talk about or voyeuristically sensationalise the revered crucifixion with their graphic descriptions. They tell you how important it is for a woman to veil her head and not speak loudly in the church because the Bible says so. They also tell the women not to wear a bindi or sandalwood paste (even in marriages where it is offered to the guests) because it is Indian. There is also something that they drill into you. If you are a true, born-again Christian you cannot or must not identify yourself with the Indian society because we are the citizens of the New Jerusalem. Fair enough? But, they are also the ones who want their children to marry within the same caste!
Why should only the leaders be blamed when most of the Indian Christian population both in India and abroad holds on to caste? It is because these leaders as the upholders of the religion have no responsibility in uprooting this unique, weird custom of India but become leaders or preachers ostensibly for the furtherance of God’s kingdom on earth! (Let me ask them a few things—is God Nadar, Dalit or Vellala? By the way did Adam and Eve belong to the same caste? Isn’t God and Kingdom of God above caste and Gender differences?) Isn’t caste HINDU? If you cannot tolerate a silly dot on the forehead and have the audacity to quote the scripture in Exodus 3: 2, how do you advocate caste? Did you know that the Hindus themselves whom we Christians dismiss and conveniently categorise as idol worshippers are slowly looking down upon caste?
The majority of Indian Christians hold on to Caste. What is it that makes a born-again Christian cling to caste despite following a religion that is above caste? And what is this caste system? It is the pattern of social classes in Hinduism. According to this, the Brahmins are placed at the top followed by the kshtriyas, the vaishyas, the sudras and the outcastes. The Bhagavad Gita lists the various duties and qualities of the people belonging to each caste. To give you an example, the Brahmin is endowed with qualities like loving-kindness, vision and faith, while the duty of the sudra is service! And what kind of service are we talking about? Tasks that involve too much pollution to be done by the caste hindus—dealing with the bodies of dead animals, manufacturing leather goods (to be worn by the caste hindus, ofcourse!) and cleaning up human waste.
So, how did it all this begin? One of the popular theories about the origins of caste is the Purusha Suktha in the Rig Veda. It is about how the people of the four castes came from each organ of brahma, the hindu god of creation. According to the legend, the brahmin came from the head, the kshatriya from the chest, the vaishya from the stomach and the sudra from the feet. Given a choice, I wouldn’t want to materialise out of any of his organs. I would prefer to be made from mud! Then according to hindu mythology I would be called a chandala, whose mere shadow would pollute the caste hindus even from 64 miles! In today’s situation, I wouldn’t be bothered about it. But it was not possible for the dalits or the low caste sudras who were tortured in the name of caste in various parts of India centuries ago? Now, I would like to add here that the lifestyle and livings conditions of the dalits and the sudras did not vary much, except for the fact that untouchability was practised on the dalits and it was not on the sudras*. That was again because the dalits killed, skinned the cows to make musical instruments and ate beef. And as it stands, if you like beef and eat beef you are a chandala!
The dalits and the low caste sudras couldn’t enter temples and didn’t have enough to eat and basically did not have dignity both in life and death. There were times when they couldn’t wear an upper garment and were ridiculed all the time for their so-called lowly birth. When this people came across a God who said “Come to me art thou heavy laden, I will give you rest”, the oppressed sections of the society converted and threw away everything that reminded them of their misery except the memories of stratification of the society. But how has it survived among the Indian christians for over 2000 years? The caste system I believe basically thrives because of the primal human feeling that constantly makes you think that you are always better than the other person. In some cases this feeling helps you to perform and work hard and rise up. But on the other hand with caste system, if you belong to a so-called ‘upper’ caste, you can afford to be lazy and not work. This primal feeling continued in the christian converts and the low caste sudras considered themselves to be above the dalits and started to do to the dalits what was done to them by the ‘upper’ castes before they converted. Thanks to all these people within the church, casteism has survived in certain christian families in such a manner that it will put to shame even the orthodox hindu brahmins!!
Now what kind of examples are we setting up for the future generations? No wonder the christian population according to the 1991 census is 19.6 million which amounts to a measly 2.3% of the total Indian population. And we are content with singing songs with the following words: Parologathai indiargal nerapuval thuthiungal (Indians will fill heaven, Praise). I remember somebody saying, “If christians in India lived as christians, there would not be any other religion in India”. This goes to prove only this, we the christians have not lived like christians, despite having to follow only two commandments—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and Love thy neighbour as thyself”. Infact, to illustrate who the neighbour is our Lord related a parable where a samaritan (today’s dalit) helps a man in need. With that Jesus removed class differences and in the Indian context, caste differences. So, how is that we who have chosen to follow christ can afford to be caste-conscious? Don’t we consider ourselves to be the products of the revolution Christ spearheaded 2000 years ago against rules that tied down people and the sectarian outlook that granted salvation only to a select few?
If we can’t act now, it is pointless to be christians and doing all kinds missionary work converting the tribals, but by no means letting them into our families because of caste. The time has come for us to wake up and identify our sin and to sin no more. Otherwise it is only fair that the christians who cannot give up caste reconvert to Hinduism where you would atleast have a religious basis to profess and practise caste. That way, the rest of us would be able to worship the Lord in oneness of spirit and truth.
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