REVIEW by Dan Packel
Travels Around the Indian Coast
by Samanth Subramanian
Penguin Books India, May 2010
Paperback 184 pp., ISBN: 978-0143064473
Most Americans don’t even contemplate the idea of eating fish in an Indian restaurant. With the bulk of these spots serving Punjabi-inspired food from the plains of North India, diners might quickly note, then dismiss, the menu’s lone “fish curry,” usually a desultory affair. The calculus is a little different in higher-end locations; here one may find something like baked Halibut with yogurt sauce, or tandori salmon.
Ultimately, these options fail to even hint at the true diversity of seafood preparations in India, where 7,000 kilometers of coastline stretch through nine different states, each with its own language. Those interested in discovering fish like hilsa (a plump white fish celebrated for its flavor in West Bengal), preparations like podi (a dried fish powder indispensable among fishing families in Tamil Nadu), and richly detailed characters dependent upon fish for their livelihoods will want to seek out Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, the first book by the Indian writer Samanth Subramanian.
Subramanian’s travelogue unfolds over nine chapters, starting in the eastern state of West Bengal and concluding in Gujarat, along the Arabian Sea. He explored his subject not through one single, uninterrupted sweep along the coast, but rather through a series of sorties, undertaken during breaks from his day job as a journalist for the Indian business daily Mint. As such, the individual chapters serve as capsules, each exploring a particular facet of fish-related activity.
Not every chapter deals directly with food. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, Subramanian focuses his attention on medicine, investigating the famous “fish treatment” of Hyderabad, where the Bathini Goud family has been treating asthma and other breathing ailments since 1845 with a remedy involving the swallowing of a live, two-inch murrel fish. In Gujarat, he looks at technological changes in boat building.
Subramanian is at his strongest when looking at how people eat and when doing some eating of his own. Getting the latter right can be a challenge: “Asking the wrong people—and it’s impossible to know who the wrong people are until you’ve eaten in the places they suggest—will lead you to the sort of food they think you want to eat, rather than the food they would themselves eat, which is also the food you really want to eat.”
He received some good directions in Kolkata, where he richly describes chef Sharad Dewan preparing hilsa in the Park Hotel: “First a swipe near the neck, then near the tail, and then longitudinal cuts along the sides to peel away the fillet from that side of the fish . . . Around the liver sat ruddy flaps of fat, signs of a hilsa that had led a contented life.”
Mangalore, in the state of Karnataka, proved more difficult. A sweep though the city’s restaurants to discover the city’s fabled fish curry left Subramanian wanting. A solution emerged only after meeting gregarious bureaucrat Vasudev Boloor. In a twist unsurprising to those familiar with Indian hospitality, Boloor volunteered his brother’s son’s wife, Shailaja, to prepare a morning meal for Subramanian. Desperately reluctant to impose, but with his remonstrations ignored, Subramanian finally satisfied his high expectations for the curry—mackerel, cooked in a gravy made with coconut, chilies, turmeric, coriander, tamarind, ginger, and more—seated in a tiny home kitchen, with a large bowl in his hands.
Other stops—a “pub crawl” through roadside toddy shops in Kerala, sport-fishing in Maharashtra—help further the reader’s curiosity about different regional preparations, while also developing a theme that Subramanian refers to obliquely, rarely directly. Economic and ecological transformations are altering the lives of those who depend on fish along the length of India’s coast. The weight of tradition in all nine stories is clear. But it’s uncertain what a like-minded traveler will discover if she follows Subramanian’s path twenty years down the line.
August 31, 2010