The fertile plains of Punjab boast tandoori meats and tasty kulchas, sarson ka saag and makki ki roti – but for Shirin Bhandari, it is Amritsari macchi that draws her to the holy city.
“Veg, non-veg?” A portly train steward asks. He repeats the question through his dark, fluffy moustache, this time louder. He bobs his head from left to right. I fumble and make a pathetic effort to sit up straight, untangling myself from the warm woollen shawl. The train is chugging along at snail’s pace. I am handed a tray filled with mysterious foil-wrapped food. A whiff of masala engulfs the entire coach. It feels good to be back in Punjab.
Amritsar is a city of pilgrimages. Whether it is to nourish your spirit and soul with the beauty of the Golden Temple or pack into the succulent ghee-infused goodies of its many dhabas. It is also a city of specialized cooking. No one food stall can do it all; the same family carries on the tradition for generations, their recipes kept under lock and key. As the cooler months set in, the streets fill up with the freshest produce of the season. The fertile plains of the Punjab boast tandoori meats and breads, the tasty kulcha chole and the comforting sarson ka saag aur makki ki roti – but the main highlight of winter through spring is the fish from Amritsar or the Amritsari macchi.
“Remember, September through April – the months with the letter ‘R’ in them!” my grandmother would say. These are the months one can purchase the freshest fish from the bazaar. This tip may sound a little eccentric, but who is to question a little old lady?
The northern state does not have an inch of marine coastline. Amritsari macchi has managed to swim from the old border town and become famous throughout India. The fish is marinated in various spices and coated with besan (chickpea flour), then fried to a golden crisp in mustard oil. Fleshy, tasty and addictive. The option of pairing it with mint and coriander chutney or the unlikely, but rather delicious option of whipped white slaw is refreshing.
The Punjabi soil is acclaimed for its fertile Basmati rice and wheat fields. The remaining low-lying land, unfit for agriculture, has been replaced with fisheries. Fish farming in natural water and village ponds has become a profitable trade in Punjab. The natural river of Harike offers singhara and sole. The more exotic breeds such as carp and the Indian rohu, katla and mrigal are grown in village ponds. Locals profess that the sweet waters of the Punjab contribute to the refined taste of its fish.
On the outskirts of the city centre, before entering the main gates of Hall Bazaar, are shacks of the famous fish fry. The pungent smell of mustard oil in the air make your eyes water. The kadhai or frying pot is charred black from years of use. The walls are stained with splash patterns of oil. The popping sound of the fish thrown into boiling hot oil is hypnotizing. The maddening mix of people, vehicles and the dusty surroundings must contribute to its distinct flavour! For a decent rate you’re handed a couple of pieces of fish wrapped in newspaper. It is then topped with finely sliced onions rings, a dash of a powdery chat masala and a lemon wedge, ideally downed with a beer.
“Did you bring the dabba?” a family friend asks. We travel through the busy streets leading to the main wet market armed with our own tiffin. Hoards of bicycles, motorcycles and rickshaws buzz along the narrow alleys. We park the car a fair distance away and decide to walk, praying we don’t get run over.
Our family’s loyalty to the same fish vendor has endured for over 50 years: A man in a greying shirt sits cross-legged. A section of an old tree trunk serves as his chopping board, and a sharp cleaver rests on top. The flies are a menace. It feels like time is standing still. The only sign of technology in the shop is a dysfunctional flat screen TV and a dented electronic scale. I pick out the largest fish and ask for it to be filleted. The butcher hacks at the sole and fish shards fly across the street. He decapitates it and removes the centre bone beautifully. The head and fish bones are placed in a separate bag, while the rest of the fish goes into our metal carrier, which will become the base for a comforting coconut curry.
“Khao, piyo aur phir maro.” Eat, drink and die – my grandmother would rant when she learned we patronized local dhabas. We come home with heads hanging down, our stomachs in a riot. She managed to preserve herself to the ripe old age of a 101 – she probably knew something we didn’t. To lure us away from constantly eating out and evading the common desi ghee-infused heart attack, our household managed to concoct a healthier version of the famed Amritsari fish. A clean and basic fry with ginger, garlic, besan, ajwain (carom), cilantro, lemon, flour and various chillies and spices.
For whatever reason you travel to the holy city, the succulent Amritsari macchi, served hot and crisp from the kadhai, is in itself worth the pilgrimage.
Amritsari Macchi (A family recipe)
½ kg (white and firm fillet of fish) i.e. sole/ singhara etc.
1 tablespoon cane vinegar/lime juice (as per your preference)
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
Salt and pepper to taste
For the batter
½ teaspoon ajwain (carom)
½ cup flour ½ cup besan (chick pea flour)
Vegetable oil/ Mustard oil for frying
Marinate fish in a bowl with the salt, pepper, ginger, garlic, red chilli powder and vinegar/lemon juice for at least 30 minutes.
For the batter, mix besan, flour, ajwain, eggs and coriander separately.
Coat marinated fish lightly in batter.
Heat oil in a frying pan and fry the fish until evenly brown and crisp, approximately 5 minutes. Serve hot with your choice of chutney, salad and lime wedges.
Shirin Bhandari is an artist and writer who splits her time between India and Manila, Philippines. Her work can be viewed on her website www.shirinmanila.wordpress.com.
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