Jeet Thayil, author and poet, discusses displacement, food and writing, as he cooks a Fisherman's Bouillabaisse in this edition of #1000Kitchens.
“Always better to err on the side of excess,” Jeet Thayil cautions straight-faced, as he walks us through mixing a martini. For reference: 5 parts good Russian vodka, 2 parts vermouth, and lots of ice. “Now, shake.”
Jeet and his niece, Tia Anasuya, are cooking a late lunch on a sunny afternoon in early February. Jeet switches between hovering over fish stock bubbling on the stove, and poring over instructions in the cookbook. “Great food writing can be literature – like reading poetry!” The Fisherman’s bouillabaisse he is cooking this afternoon carries influences from one of his favourite writers, MFK Fisher. “This line – listen, it's beautiful: When crushing and squeezing the fish through the food mill or chinoise, do not give up early. Some of the tastiest and richest juices will be the last to be extracted.”
Why does a writer who grew up in Hong Kong and Mumbai pick a French bouillabaisse to cook today? "I don't know.” He pauses. “I can't remember where I first had it, or even where I last had it. But whenever I’ve lived near the sea, I’ve always made bouillabaisse.” Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere – the book he is working on at the moment is a collection of essays and stories on displacement. Jeet experiences displacement as a reward – a gift, and a pleasure. “Who wants to belong to a place? Not me! I’m always searching to be out of place.” Partly autobiographical, the book moves between Berlin, Shanghai, Hanoi and Kerala, chasing the theme of dislocation. “Your obsessions don’t really change, from book to book. The deep things stay the same; only the form changes – the boring stuff,” he says lightly.
Jeet and his sister Sheba spent the chunk of their growing up years up in Hong Kong, until Sheba was sent back to India. As teenagers in Hong Kong, the siblings’ father discovered that someone had been smoking cigarettes at home. “Of course, it had been me. But Sheba took the fall for it.” Concerned about the corrupting influences of ‘Western’ culture, Sheba was sent back to India in a hurry. “I never told the truth and she never did either,” he says.
It is in Sheba’s warm, spacious kitchen that Jeet and Tia are cooking today. Jeet recently moved to Bangalore from Delhi, staying with his sister until he moves again to Hanoi, to work on his book (“I need colour and detail”). On the stove, a pot with fish heads and bones, cooked down with onion and garlic, bay leaves and sweet paprika, has been simmering for forty-five minutes. It’s going to be an intense stock.
“You’re not supposed to let it simmer more than twenty minutes,” Tia interjects. She has recently completed a culinary course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and uncle and niece have been sparring with culinary trivia, each drawing more obscure facts and techniques every round. Jeet opens the refrigerator to pull out a bowl of fish that has been marinating in saffron, olive oil and chardonnay: “Seer fish, rawas, sea bass, and prawn.”
“I tried to tell him that fish stock is made with very particular things in France, but no. He says we’re in India, so we're going to tweak it.” Does she recognise her uncle’s voice in his books? “Yes and no,” she replies thoughtfully. “When he talks about literature, yes. But he’s young at heart, he likes to indulge his wild side. Sometimes I feel like he’s a toddler, and I’m babysitting him,” she says, rolling her eyes with affection.
At the desk, Jeet peers into the cookbook again. A Max Vadakul photograph hangs adjacent to one of Jeet himself, and he catches us examining it. “For the record, I didn’t put that up there.”
“Yes, Marilyn Monroe was up there until yesterday. But our grandmother is going to prefer the replacement – her golden child,” Tia laughs, before stopping to correct herself: “My grandmother, his mother. Told you – little brother,” she says, shaking her head.
The stock is ready, and Jeet gently transfers the fish and prawn into the pot, staggering to adjust for cooking time. The potatoes aren’t cooked through, he notes, stabbing one with a fork. He reaches for a pencil to scribble a correction into the cookbook: Saute potatoes in butter, 7 min.
As we sit down at the table to eat, a friend of the family drops by; Geetha has known Jeet and Sheba since they were children. Tia brings out warm, toasty baguette, and we line our bowls, heaping the bouillabaisse generously over. The stew is hearty and delicious.
“Not too fishy at all, huh?" Jeet says happily, passing around the salt-shaker. We decline. Not fishy at all, instead a delicious, full-bodied soup, perfect to mop up with crusty baguette. We reach for seconds as Tia disappears into the kitchen again. She returns with dessert in both hands: One, a beautiful, dark chocolate and salted caramel tart, topped with strawberries and cacao nibs, and in the other, homemade bacon ice-cream. Several portions later, we slump into our chairs, deliciously satisfied. Geetha spoons the last dregs from her bowl, and exclaims at cheating on her diet. “Tia kutten's dessert was excellent!” quickly adding a cheeky afterthought: “Jeet, your dish was also okay."
Recipe: Jeet Thayil's bouillabaisse, adapted from Daniel Young's Bouillabaisse du Pécheur
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large onions, minced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
300 g fish heads and bones
6 to 8 ripe plum tomatoes, quartered
2 sprigs thyme
3 bay laves
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp sweet paprika
Squeeze of lime
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed stock-pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook gently. Do not let them turn colour.
Add garlic and lower heat in required.
Add fish heads, bones and scraps, raise heat to high and cook, stirring often, careful not to crush the fish parts. 7 to 10 minutes.
Add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, cayenne and sweet paprika. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes.
Pour boiling water over, lower the flame and simmer for 25 minutes.
Pass the mixture through a food mill, pressing down with a wooden spoon so that the juices seep out.
1 kilo of fish, cleaned and dried (Choose Seer, Rawas, Indian sea bass and prawn)
1 tbsp Chardonnay
1 ½ tsp saffron threads
¾ cup olive oil
3 large onions, sliced
4 cloves of garlic
1 bulb fennel
6 to 8 plum tomatoes
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground Kerala black pepper
½ kilo potato
1 baguette, sliced and toasted
Cut the fish into uniform pieces, about 3 inches wide. Place all the fish pieces into large mixing bowl. Add the Chardonnay, saffron and half cup olive oil, and mix well, careful not to bruise the fish. Cover and allow to marinate for at least 3 hours in the refrigerator.
Heat the remaining ¼ cup of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat.
Add onions and cook gently. Make sure the onions do not turn colour.
Add 3 garlic cloves and fennel, and continue to cook, careful not to let the ingredients burn.
Add tomatoes and bay leaf, season with salt and pepper, and allow to cook for another 5 minutes.
Place the potatoes in an even layer at the bottom of the pot. (Preferably, sauté in butter first, for approximately 7 minutes)
Top with fish in even layers, and pour enough water to just cover the ingredients in the pot.
Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add in the prawn.
Correct the seasoning, add cayenne if needed. Ladle in stock to taste.
To serve, delicately remove all the fish and potatoes from the soup with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Pour the soup through a strainer to remove the vegetable pieces.
Arrange the fish, potatoes and soup in a bowl.
Rub the toasted baguettes with a garlic clove.
Have the diners place a slice of baguette at the bottom of a shallow bowl and ladle the soup over.
Words by Anisha Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.
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