Achar for a rainy day
Pickled bombil, pamphlet and bangda, for when it's raining cats and dogs, and you're craving some fish
In the fish-loving Pathare Prabhu home where Kalpana Talpade grew up, monsoon was when the kitchen would drown in the smells of hot oil and fried garlic. With fish markets abandoned, and the only other options for seafood being nivtya—a black slithering macchi found in the swampy mangroves—or crabs, Kalpana's mum, Sulabha Krishnarao Talpade had found an ingenious way to tide through this lean period.
"In those days, we didn't have a refrigerator and so, if my mum found fresh prawns or bombils [Bombay ducks] in the market, she'd buy them in bulk, and make pickles out of them."
1. To make the Pathare Prabhu prawn pickle (kolambi che lonche), wash prawns and pat them dry with a cloth; marinate it with haldi and salt
The fish pickle that found a pride of place on their dining table, would last them at least four to five days, and was relished with everything from varan bhaath to rotis. A new batch would be made after another fresh lot of fish arrived at the market. Talpade's fascination for fish achars began somewhere at that time, as she went on to experiment using the same masalas to pickle ghol, pomfret and gaboli (fish roe).
At the many homes in Mumbai where seafood is a staple, monsoon means that fish varieties are in scarce. This is the time when some of the city's biggest fish markets, Bhaucha Dhakka (Ferry Wharf) and Sassoon Dock, shut shop, because of the state's fishing ban—June-July is breeding season and fishing activity is halted to allow babies to hatch.
2. Deep fry the prawns. Remove them. In the same oil, add crushed garlic, green chillies whole and asafoetida. Let the oil cool
Even local fishermen, who have to contend with unruly seas, avoid taking their boats out or pitch themselves in the creeks, instead. Seafood lovers, thus, mostly have to make-do with the "avoidable and unhealthy" frozen fish or imports from Gujarat. As fishermen only set sail after Narali Purnima (August 15, this year), writer and food chronicler Saee Koranne-Khandekar says that many coastal communities traditionally, developed the art of pickling seafood, even fresh varieties, so that they can dig into fish during rain.
Mumbai-based Chinmaya Kamat, a Goan home chef with Authenticook, says that at their home, preparation for the poor catch season begins early on, in summer itself. Kamat makes a piquant bangdyache lonche (mackerel pickle), influenced by Goan-Portuguese cooking, which lasts her at least six months.
3. Add two to three spoons of methkut powder, prepared with methi danas (fenugreek seeds), rye, asafoetida and sea salt. Add red chilli powder to the marinade
"But, to ensure that the pickle doesn't go bad, you have to get hold of fresh fish. The mackerel has to be stiff. If it's soft, the pickle won't last long," says Kamat. Because, it's next to impossible to get fresh mackerel at markets during monsoon, Kamat picks a good variety in May.
"I dispose the head, cut the body into medium pieces, and immediately marinate it with turmeric for 15 minutes. I then, prepare a paste of Kashmiri and Goan chillies with vinegar, adding spices such as pepper and cumin, to it. The mackerel pieces are shallow fried in lots of oil, cooled for around two hours and added to the heated paste. The salt is added later," says Kamat.
4. Coat the powder well. Pour the oil in the marinade
This is then stored in ceramic jars where it's good to be consumed for another six months. The home chef also makes another variety of mackerel pickle, which is traditionally cooked at her home, but won't hold beyond five days.
"Goan Hindus don't like vinegar in their pickle. [Vinegar is a good preserve and increases the shelf-life of the food.] We, instead, make our pickle using tamarind to get the tangy flavour. We also marinate the mackerel with salt, which again means that it won't stay long, as salt releases water. Garlic is used for tempering."
5. Home chef Pooja Rane suggests squeezing a lime over the pickle. Store it in a jar. Pics/Ashish Raje
Parsi caterer Zinobia Schroff, known for her delicious home-made pickles, says that while her fish specialties are popular through the year, the demand shoots up during the monsoon. Influenced heavily by Parsi cuisine, Schroff uses vinegar, oil and spices to pickle her fish.
While she makes pickles with everything from prawn, bombil, rawas to salmon, it's her garab achar, made from the eggs of fish (fish-roe)—popularly known as gaboli in Mumbai—that she says is the big winner. "People ask for my garab achar, even before the garab comes into my hand," she jokes.
As it's the breeding season, gaboli is in surplus during this season and hence, also a favourite among fish eaters. "The gaboli of the bhing [hilsa] is utterly delicious. In fact, Parsis, will eat roe only from this fish—it's the king of roe," she adds. But, one has to be careful, while making it. "Before the pickle masala is added to it, the steamed gaboli is sautéed in oil. That's when it begins to splatter. You need to cover your eyes, to prevent any injury," adds Schroff.
East Indian home chef Sharon Barretto, who is also part of the culinary team at Authenticook, says dried fish pickles are most savoured in the rain. "East Indians are fond of fish, and if we don't get a good catch on any particular day, we turn to the dried varieties [bombils, bangda and pomfrets]. In the earlier days, we didn't have a refrigerator to store fish made from fresh pickles, so dried fish was preferred, and continues to be a favourite. The pickle is prepared with ground Kashmiri chillies, jeera, garlic and vinegar."
Sharon Barretto learnt the art of pickling dried bombils and bangda from her mum Helen. They use a special East Indian pickle masala for the preparation. Pic/Nimesh Dave
How long can the pickle last?
Unlike other coastal communities, the Pathare Prabhus don't like dried fish at all, says home chef Pooja Rane. "We buy fresh prawns in bulk, two weeks before the rain, and prepare the pickle [kolambi che lonche] to last us the entire monsoon season [nearly four months]." The key is to keep the pickle in the fridge and add a lot of oil. "The way it is stored is also important. A good idea is to store it in ceramic jars," says Rane, who is a Punjabi, but married to a Pathare Prabhu. "We make a methkut powder, prepared with methi danas [fenugreek seeds], rye, hing and sea salt, which is added to the pickle. This particular masala helps preserve it longer."
She also suggests deep-frying the prawns. "You need to know how to fry it, though. It has to lose all the water, because if there is water [in the prawns], it won't last, but the flesh should not be very chewy."
Schroff never makes pickles from frozen fish. "I make it straight after I buy it from the market; stored fish tends to lose its taste and content." She also dries her fish in a kitchen cloth, to remove any excess water. Kamat offers another tip. "Once your pickle is ready, store it in tiny glass jars and keep it in the refrigerator. After you have removed your jar from the fridge, finish it whole, instead of keeping it back in the fridge. That way, you can enjoy fresh pickle fish and won't miss it in the rain at all."
Also read: Dancing in the kitchen
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