The rigours of adolescence, studies and hostel connived to reduce my hair to a rat’s tail, and the best option to make it look better was to cut it. Off I went to the hippest saloon on a day we could get away from hostel for a couple of hours. The stylist, who to me looked really exotic for various reasons including her nose ring, her looks, the scarf wrapped around her head, and her unusually spelt usual name, held up my hair, took one look at it and pronounced it was full of split ends. There was no use cutting it if she didn’t hack it off right from the top, she said, warning me my hair would become pretty short then.
I told her to do the needful, and she gave me a step cut which, later, an aunt who lived in the West told me was called a shag, or a shake. Well, between Aunt and I, one had the former, and the other had the shake – I don’t remember who had which.
How I also bought the hairstylist’s specially formulated oil to restore my hair to its former splendour and used up exactly half of it the next day in post-haircut trauma is a tale for another day, but my hair has gotten progressively shorter since then, and poses a problem for many people who try to guess which part of India I come from. I would have thought it was a cinch to guess, given the rest of me, but it’s as much not, as I was to discover.
While Telugus who know I’m from Andhra Pradesh ask me if I can speak/read/write Telugu before proceeding to speak to me in English, others take it for granted that I hail from Punjab or West Bengal or Kerala, because of whatever aspect of my form they associate with these States. My name, and I’m not telling you what it is, is often taken for Bengali, and if I fib that I am, I’m asked to bring Sondesh (unfailingly pronounced the Bengali way) the next time we meet. My full figure is often mistaken for Punjabi but it really entertains me that people discount my height and my colouring when they make their stereotype-based assessment. And Kerala, I am not sure why. Maybe my colouring, and the fact that most Malayali women in their know sported short hair, probably.
I really don’t know, but I had the amusing experience of stepping off a train in Coimbatore and having a woman speak to me in Malayalam, asking me if I wasn’t Rega of Palakkad when I looked uncomprehending. At a meeting in Paris, an Indian colleague comes up to me and says something I don’t understand – when we introduce ourselves moments later, he says he had spoken in Bengali, and my name is further proof of my putative Bengaliness.
Then there was the friendly co-passenger in the train home, who declared that however much I had my hair shorn, my face made it quite plain I was typically Telugu. And there are others who say, “Ah, I didn’t say it but I guessed you were Telugu,” like it’s a fact better kept hidden, a truth they intuited but mutely conspired with me to keep silent! And there was the staff nurse at the hospital my Dad consulted who said she thought I was born during my parents’ years “in America because you are “little bit healthy” (yeah, that’s kind for “fat”).
This amuses me no end, and while I'm glad to look a bit of all these, I respectfully deny my name is typically Bengali, my figure is Punjabi and my hair is Malayali – my looks could be resoundingly Telugu, I suppose; I’m glad I reflect my heritage in some small way or the other. So in celebration of the number of States I could well hail from, let’s tuck into some fish, which is dear to all these ethnic groups.
The recipe is Tomato Fish, based on one from Nita Mehta’s Punjabi Khana.
Fish – 500 gm, cut into 2- or 3-inch pieces (preferably boneless/skinless)
Oil for frying
Salt – to taste
Red chilli powder – 1 tsp
Lemon juice – 2 tbsp
Coriander powder – 1 tsp
Cumin powder – 1 tsp
Combine all these ingredients and marinate the washed fish in the mix for 15 minutes.
Ripe red tomatoes – 500 gm, pureed (The author recommends blanching them first)
Oil – 1 tsp (she recommends 5-6, but the fish has been fried, so I didn’t go by the book)
Garlic – 5 cloves, skinned
Red chilli powder – 1 – 1-1/2 tsp
Salt – to taste
Garam masala – 1 tsp
Coriander powder – 1 tsp
Sugar - 1-1/2 tsp (I left this out)
Kasoori Methi – 2 tbsp
Coriander – to garnish (and green chillies too, the book says)
Heat oil in a shallow pan and fry the fish lightly. Do not make it crisp. Remove and keep aside.
Heat the 1 tsp of oil in a pan. Add the garlic and fry till light brown.
Add tomato puree and the other seasonings including the kasuri methi. Let it boil once, as your stir continuously.
Slide in the fish pieces and let them boil for 4-5 minutes.
Serve hot, garnished with the coriander.
Please don't forget AFAM-Pomegranate (link in the sidebar or further down) - the deadline of Feb 25 is fast approaching!
Fish Tomatoes Telugu Andhra Pradesh Kerala Malayali Punjab Humour Musings Kasoori Methi