Something Fishy This Way Comes

April 6th, 201111:55 am @


All I needed was some loaves and I was set.

You can trace India’s modern history in the suburbs of Delhi. Over the years sections of the capital have been developed and given over to refugees fleeing the country’s various conflicts. In the south, Chittaranjan Park – formerly known as the East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony – is home to a large swathe of Delhi’s Bengali community, who settled there from East Pakistan – aka Bangladesh – after the suburb was established in the ’60s.

Bengalis love their seafood, so it’s no surprise that the centre of Bengali life in Delhi would have its own fish market. Actually, I was a bit surprised when we stumbled upon the market one day while on the hunt for something completely different. It’s always the way – you’re looking for your wallet and you manage to find that issue of Horse & Hound with the article about restored frescoes in Umbria that you were telling your wife about. Anyway…

I have my suspicions about seafood served inland and I’d decided that Delhi, being most definitely inland, wasn’t a great place to go looking for it. Luckily, the Bengali seafood obsession means the stuff is flown in fresh. Now, this is not going to do you any favours with the “Eat Local” crowd, but if you’ve ever caught the Metro over the Yamuna River, you don’t want to be eating locally sourced fish. Trust me on this.

The first thing I noticed when we ventured in was the complete absence of stench. This was a good sign – fresh fish doesn’t stink. The second thing I noticed were the hordes of blokes looking our way, waving and shouting. I had no idea what they wanted, but they looked very earnest. We’d passed a temple to get into the market and I was starting to wonder – as I do when I get a little paranoid – if I’d caused some great offence. I knew I was wearing my shoes but really, there was no way I was going barefoot in the red-stained slosh of the market floor.

No, it transpired that they wanted to sell me stuff. Fish, as it turned out.

And what fish they had to sell – salmon, pomfret, prawns so large they’d pass as lobsters in less scrupulous restaurants, random anonymous fish that I cannot for the life of me recall the names of. Actually, asking “what is this?” was a hazardous business as it usually resulted in the fishmonger lobbing a few of them at a bloke sat behind the table who began to clean them while his cohort asked me “how much do you want?” while I tried to explain I just wanted to know its name, not take it home. If I wasn’t careful I’d be cooking bouillabaisse.

Instead, what I was here for were prawns – big, fat juicy ones for a prawn malai curry. As this particular visit was late in the day, I wasn’t hopeful of finding anything too great, especially as the prawns on offer at the first few stalls were limp and grey. Finally I found someone with a stash of bright blue ones with firm flesh. I tried asking where they were from but this started the process of prawns being thrown to the guy behind the table while the fishmonger asked me “how much?” and “want them cleaned?”.

The cleaning itself was a sight to behold as it was done on an enormous fixed blade using hands and feet – the latter being necessary as the guy’s hands were often occupied smoking a cigarette. While my prawns were being de-headed and de-veined I engaged in what little small talk I could with the fishmonger, who I think went by the name of Bappu. Whenever he didn’t understand my questions he would simply readjust the scarf tied jauntily around his neck and smile. He did that a lot.

It didn’t take long for our friend to have my prawns cleaned and handed to me in a plastic bag. One kilo for 500 rupees (about 8 euros), which I’m sure was “foreigner with big camera rates”, but I wasn’t complaining. I had fresh fish whenever I wanted it – and they’d even deliver to my door.

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