Tuesday, February 19, 2008

No Queer Fish This!

I was the kind who had waist-length hair, two plaits and liked wearing strings of jasmine in them. At least, I think I enjoyed wearing the flowers, because I’ve been missing that ever since I cut my hair, which was quite a long time ago.

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!


  1. Oh thats punjabi khana. So you must be punjabi !!! he he heeee

  2. This is so hilarious, Sra! I agree with you about the name thing, some of my friends have had similar experiences :).

    And i never understand these stereotypes about "where are you from" :-D.

  3. Great story, Sra!! Cracked me up. Fish looks great and different than my usual way of making it. Will try your version, too! :)

  4. hmmm...your name has been mentioned in one of the other blogs. ;-)

    Have I ever told u that I like your profile pic?:-)

  5. Ah now I know how to spot you correctly on the road if ...look for a lady who looks like a punjabi, with malayali features with a hair fit for a kid and might also resemble a telugu..its a breeze of a work!..btw that dish does look very yummy..though I know you won't want to know!...:D

  6. Revathi, can't imagine how much fuller my figure would have been if I was Punjabi, with all that delicious Punjabi food! ;)
    Musical, actually, even I make assumptions - just that it's fun to distance yourself and look at them. I'm really amused when people say Punjabi, tho' - what happened to the height and the colour, or are they just trying to tell me I'm heavy? :(
    Sagari, thank you.
    Kalai, thanks. It's a tasty recipe.
    Psst, TBC, don't let on! The profile pic is my own creation, thank you so much!
    Valli, I'll wait and watch. ;)

  7. Too funny!!
    I've had similar experiences....my last name is such that it cannot be slotted!

  8. So what are you saying, Sra dear -- you're a mutt? So am I... Scot, Brit, French-candian, Russian... and so on and so on and so on... :)

  9. I just came to know of your full name today Sra :D :D
    Great writeup as usual, loved the way you tied your intro to the post :D I never understand those people who starts talking to you in the language which they think you should know! But I "hate" those who think you don't know a language and start talking about you in that language! It has happened to me sooo many times in Bangalore, mallus talking about me in Malayalam right in front of me!!! I used to listen to the whole thing silently, and then respond to them in Malayalam, and the expression on their face - priceless!

  10. BTW, I again forgot about the recipe after reading your beautiful prose:) Love everything about this fish masala... Is it supposed to be a dry/thick gravy preparation? Love pre-frying the fish part... we make most fish curries that way these days!

  11. Yeah i was just thinking the same as revathi ;-)
    When i go to some indian gettogether, they think i am a bengali dont know why, everytime it is the same then i've to tell the i am a malayali ( haired one)

  12. I remember you had short hair when I knew you - how much shorter could it have possibly got now? :)

    Loved the post!

    PS. Sorry for letting the cat out of the bag. I've pushed it back in now!

  13. at least some of them think u have telugu feature. i am approched by all the people from different states talking to me in their regional language and they still didn't belive when i said i am a kannadiga!!!
    here its another story. so they call us asians and we can be pakisthani, bangla desi's, indians or sri lankans;) i guess they will get heart attack if i give them a number of states we have in india;)

  14. Hahaha!! I relate to that story!!
    I had a page boy's cut all the life and they always thought I was Coorgi,Gujju or Goan, then either I was a Christian or a Muslim (my second name was Bhanu,like the sky but they called me Banu!). A Lingayat girl? NOOO WAY!!!;D
    I grew it shoulder length a year before I got married so they can attach a false hair to make it long for my wedding and a year after it was all cut off! I don't like long hair.
    Yeah, people have lot of stereotypes, wish they get over it.I hate when somebody calls all south Indians "Madrasis"!! Like in US, we Indians are always thought of being very poor in Indian and how lucky we are to be here!
    When I say (to darling white people)we grew up in the Estates, they ask "Did your parents work there?" and I say "No, we own it and employ 60+ laborers to do the work", their mouth is open! When I say we went Catholic school, they say "why aren't you converted to Christianity, nuns are NOT doing their job!" :D

  15. Yet another amusing read Sra.. loved it.

  16. TC, my last name is a dead giveaway, but to strangers, it could as well be The Spouse's, so the guessing goes on!
    Linda, you don't know how amused I was to see the first line in comment moderation break off at "you're a mutt". Till now, I always thought a mutt was a foolish dog, and by extension, a foolish person, never knew it was a mongrel. Well, I'm Pureblood but the Muggles, they suppose their own ...
    Sig, I order you, forget my name now! :D Actually, I owe this post to you - after your lovely award of yesterday, I went over this piece again and again, thinking, Sig's said this, and I can't afford to be not funny.
    I've been on the other side - spoken to several people in Telugu, only to have them rather snootily respond to me in English. So if it's English they want, it's English they'll get. It's only in the blogs that I see some Telugu pride going around, you know, we don't take much pride in being Andhra or Telugu, in my experience.
    Yes, it's a thick gravy, clingy.
    Happy cook, even this evening someone asked me if I was Bengali and said I very much looked like one - they must have wondered why I was grinning so much!!!
    Shyam, it barely scrapes the nape of my neck now! Thanks for putting the cat back in ;)
    Asha, really? Funny that in US and Bangalore, u got asked these questions. I remember, when I was growing up, frocks, skirts, bellbottoms and all were okay, but if you wore salwar kameez, occasionally someone would wonder if you were Muslim.
    Laavanya, thanks a lot.

  17. I know how short your hair is. The profile pic shows :D

  18. Thats such a nice writeup Sra. I too had a long hair and some people almost got a heart attack when I cut it short :D.
    I had 3 mallu roommates and all of them would start talking in malyalam infront of me. I initially told them very nicely, then I gave up...

    Fish in tomoto looks good. Somehow I have never paired fish with tomato, donno why. I have to try this sometime..

  19. wow....nice fish recipe

  20. I enjoyed reading this. It is amazing the assumptions people make just by looking at you eh?

    Being bi-racial, I too have my fair share of people guessing what I am. Sometimes I find it amusing, sometimes I find it annoying.

  21. Hahaha, it happens to me all the time..it really amuses me when ppl call me a gujju or a tam... rather than a telugu girl.. though I assume I look like a *telugu girl*.. Nice post Sra.. and glad to know u are a telugu speaking.. one like me.. ( TO be honest, I never thought u were one.. hehehhe..:DD)


  22. great read....so may I know your name please...??? :)))

    Neat recipe!

  23. my! that's a yummy looking dish. i love sea food! and ur write up was not bad either :D hehehe

  24. Sra, now I am able to see the justification behind your profile pic ! it explains everything now :)

  25. Oh man, I know that hair story! Been there several times over :)

    Ok, you need a new event that involves guessing your name!

  26. Wow, what a narrtion. love the hair story and the resemblance story. Hat's off!

  27. Hi Sra- this time here!You have a LOVELY blog, we have added you on our blogroll.

  28. Suganya, it's shorter now!
    Shilpa, did you learn Malayalam? That tends to happen :) Thanks.
    Dhivya, thanks.
    Cynthia, I find it entertaining, and I don't mind, unless it's accompanied by some tasteless crack.
    Siri, I've never been told I look Gujju or Tam. I'm very much Telugu - born and brought up there, studied Telugu, still read it
    Rachel, thanks ;)
    Nags, thank you :)
    Shn, so I'm a complete Indian, right?
    Kaykat, now that's an event in which I'll be accused of some of the worst things in blogdom!
    Uma, thank you.
    Dee & Chai, welcome, and thanks.

  29. Haha.... we share something here Sra..... With my name people think I am a bengali as well..... and with my built they are confident in punjab!! Now you must tell me your name ;)

  30. I love marinated fish and yours look simple yet delish:-)
    Thanks for sharing
    X M

  31. yummy looking fish Sra, and as usual an amusing writeup....so you are a Punju, living in Punjab ;-)

  32. The only people I've ever known with your name are Telugu... but hey... even I had waist length braids and now my hair stops at my shoulders :-) but I never enjoyed wearing jasmine... remain allergic to the smell to this day!!
    very funny post... and we have the exact same corelle set :-)

  33. Sra,
    Hillarious! My name is not a common Tamil name although my last name cannot be anything else but... and I've had similar experiences too. I have had fellow Tamilians ask me if I'm Muslim and if my name is a variation of the name Mumtaz!


  34. Sra,
    Many thanks for the suggestion.I hadn't heard of the link you gave! I have published your comment so others like me could benefit from it. Love the fish recipe,
    sorry for not posting a pomegranate recipe, hope to do when you host an event next time.. :)

  35. hi sra!! cudn't stop smiling while reading the write up...amusing.The bottomline truth is that we are all indians:).regarding the fish iam sure it was delicious as nothing wud go wrong with nita mehta's recipes.i am an ardent fan of hers and most of ny cooking is adapted from her books.

  36. Tomato fish looks great. Wonderful dish. Very funny rightup. Had fun reading it.
    I do not have any neeta mehta book. i am going to add it to my "to buy" list.

  37. Haha Sra! I face the same situation coz people say I have a Gujarati/Maharashtrian name, look like a North Indian, hair like a south Indian, etc etc!!! Well, I'm quite cosmopolitain in that case! Btw, did you notice you've posted a Punjabi recipe by "Nita Mehta. :)

  38. Coffee, when I come to your place, remember? That's on my list of must-visits.
    Toothfairy, thanks, hope this works for you.
    Shella, ha ha, yes!
    Raaga, that's what I thought - never met/heard of any Bengalis with that name, but !!! And I've not even come across many Telugus with that name!
    Mamatha, for real? Were they Indians, who asked you that? I suppose not. It's a very popular Telugu name, btw, I knew lots of people with that name.
    Seena, thanks. There's always a next time.
    Saswati, thank you. Yes, Nita Mehta is working out well.
    Meera, thank you. This book seems to be worth it.
    Jyothsna, yes, that word was eluding me - cosmopolitan - will amend the post soon to reflect that! And yes, Nita Mehta and Punjabi was not lost upon me. Just didn't mention it for political correctness!

  39. Hi Sia, That was absolutely hilarious. Very funny, indeed.

  40. Just the thought of all of those possibilities makes me dizzy!
    But how fun....and irritating it must be!

  41. Had a good laugh reading your post.
    Amazing recipe.