Arati Naik discovers that the taste of her childhood, smoked freshly-caught mackerel, is easy to recreate in her home kitchen.
My grandfather would tell stories of Karwar and Goa, where he’d catch fresh mackerel and cook it right on those sandy beaches. He’d say the fish was so fresh and salty, all they needed was a pit dug in the soft sand, and a bit of dried hay to get the fire going. The fresh fish, wrapped up in banana leaves, would then be tossed into the gently burning embers. Burying the fish in sand retained the heat inside for a beautiful slow cook. The entire village would come together to smoke a big batch of fish, which would then be distributed equally between all the homes in the village. Freshly caught mackerel was the community favourite, its silvery skin blistering in the slow heat, the hay imparting an incredible smokiness to the salty fish.
Traditionally, fish and other meats were smoked or dried to stock up for times of scarcity (seasonal or otherwise), so these delicacies could be enjoyed anytime, albeit in preparations quite distinct from those cooked fresh. Smoking the fish lends it a beautiful umami-heavy flavour that can take your breath away. My grandmother’s hay-smoked fish with rice and sol-kadi still holds a special place in my heart.
I recently attempted to smoke mackerel at home, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was, and that the flavours were more or less exactly how I remember. All you need is fresh mackerel, a good wok, some hay (I bought mine from the local pet shop, stocked as hamster feed), a round wire rack, aluminium foil and rock salt.
The first thing to do is salt the fish for 15-20 minutes — not longer, or the fish will get too salty. Best to just clean the fish and apply rock salt all over. You can use a fillet, but smoking the fish on the bone lends a completely different flavour. After 20 minutes or so, wash it gently to remove the excess salt.
Now for the smoking: take a nice big wok and cover the inside of it with foil. Then add a decent amount of hay to fill more than half the wok. At this point, you can choose to add tea leaves to the hay (as tea smoking imparts a much deeper colour and flavour), or any other aromatics — I add a couple of triphala pepper corns, as the spiciness pairs beautifully with mackerel.
And finally, fit the wire rack over the hay and gently place the fish on top. Cover the wok with a lid, and keep the flame on high, until the hay starts smoking. Now, reduce the flame and let it smoke for a good 15 minutes. When the fish is cooked through (its flesh will change colour), turn off the heat and let it remain in the smoky wok for a while until it returns to room temperature. Pro tip: Never eat smoked fish hot, as the flavours have not yet had a chance to develop.
And that’s all there is to making perfectly smoked mackerel at home! I have tried this method with several varieties of fish, but my all-time favourite remains the mackerel. You can flex those creative muscles with the kinds of ingredients to include while smoking, like lemon or orange peel, dill or even some spices. But somehow, hay alone is all the magic I need.
And now when I eat smoked fish at my house, I am still transported to sultry days in Karwar, where rice and smoked fish were a delicacy to be enjoyed with a side of old fishermen tales, under open, starry skies.
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