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Bon Appétit! Head Start

Why the fish head gets pride of place in Bengali kitchens.

Written by Kaushik Das Gupta | Updated: September 15, 2019 6:01:18 am
fish, love for fish, bengali households, eye 2019, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Fish Out: The Bengali love for fish head derives from a primeval tradition of respecting all parts of edible creatures. (Source: Express Archives)

In my parents’ wedding album, a photograph perplexed me for years. It was that of a rohu decked up as a bride. It took some explaining to make me understand the large carp’s place in the auspicious occasion. In the waterbody-rich landscape of Bengal, fish, I was told, is considered a symbol of prosperity. The vermillion-streaked rohu in the tattwo (an assortment of gifts) is said to be a blessing from the elders to the young couple. After the gifts sent by both the sides had been welcomed by blowing conch shells and loud ululations, the fish would be cut into pieces, deep fried or immersed in a rich gravy to be served to the guests.

But my consternation actually stemmed from the pride of place given to the fish head, the muro, in this affair. Much as I loved the faceless fillets of fish, it was difficult to understand why the bony encasing of mysterious Piscean textures had to be the piece de resistance in the last meal the bride and the groom would have before exchanging marriage vows.

That is where all the goodness of the rohu lies, my grandmother would explain. I regarded her sermons on the nutritional goodness of the fish head with some apprehension. For, they would usually be followed by her ladling on my plate a medley of vegetables in which parts of the muro stuck out awkwardly — or mung dal, in which fish cheekbones appeared as interlopers. The introduction of the refrigerator in our household made things worse — the fish head could now be put into the freezer, to be summoned at grandma’s will.

I gradually made peace, and, at some point, developed a taste for fish-head recipes. Perhaps, the change had to do with observing my grandmother negotiate with the fish seller. She would pick up the fish, look the dead creature in the eye and after scrutinising a few specimens, give an approving nod. Before that, she would flip open the gill and peer at what lay underneath. “Bright clear eyes mean the fish is fresh and the gills should be close to ruby red,” grandma would say. She would marinate the muro in salt and turmeric, roast the mung dal till it was golden and the kitchen redolent with its fragrance. It was then time for the sizzling mustard oil to welcome the fish. Ghee, red chilies and cinnamon in another karahi added to this medley of aromas. The fish head would be smashed so that it spread evenly in the dal. The chorchori (medley) of pumpkin, potatoes, broadbean and eggplant, chopped in long pieces, mustard paste, black cumin seeds and green chillies acquired a new twist of flavour after being slow cooked with smashed pieces of muro.

As I shed my prejudice about the fish eyes prying on me and learnt to work my way around an assortment of hard and gloopy parts, I became acquainted with a bounty of meat tucked away in the creature’s cheeks and around its gills, collarbones and forehead. Fresh fish can imbue the dal with the flavours of the river, grandma would say.

As a student of social science, I learnt that the Bengali love for fish head derives from a primeval tradition of respecting all parts of edible creatures. As grandma would say, “Look at food without prejudice and you will find a world of tastes opening up before you”.

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