Monday, March 16, 2009

Gone Fishin'

This morning I saw my neighbour fishing. In the sewer beside his house.

The disturbing thing is that after three and a half months here, it did not strike me as odd. "Buddy is fishing in the sewer. Well, that makes perfect sense". As I walked out of the house this morning with the whole family, the first thing we saw outside the gate was our next door neighbour, whose name escapes me. Clad in a lunghi and a once-snazzy shirt, he was poised expectantly beside the open sewer that runs around both sides of nearly every street here. The ditch is filled with some sort of liquid/solid amalgam. An ever changing soup of mosquito larvae-ridden grey water and human effluent. My neighbour dude had fashioned a fishing pole from a 3 foot stick, and tied some fishing line to it. The other end was submerged in the water, presumably tied to a hook, although it was impossible to tell, given the thick crust on the surface. In another setting it could have been some sort of absurdist performance art, where some black-clad bohemian dangles a line into the toilet of a SoHo loft, while reciting poetry about their miserable childhood, whilst the surrounding hipsters nod their heads approvingly. This was different, though. I passed up the temptation to ask "Catching anything?", and the five of us walked on at a zippy pace. 20 yards later we looked at each other. Was he really fishing in the sewer? Yes. I made a mental note to decline any subsequent dinner invitations.

I should point out that this was not my landlord and neighbour Stanley indulging in his piscean passion. Stanley is a bit of a connoisseur of fish, and any and all invitations to dine at his table are gleefully accepted. His wife, Gigi, allowed us to film her creating two Kerala classics "Fish & Mango Coconut Curry", and "Fish Pollichathu", which is fish coated in a spicy paste and then wrapped in banana leaves to finish cooking. All of these recipes will eventually be posted after we go through and review the tapes and transcribe and test them.

But first, one must have fish! After briefly considering it, I decided against my other neighbour's approach to fish acquisition, and instead, grabbed my cloth marketing bag and hopped on the back of Stanley's motorcycle for the short trip up to the local market. I've written a bit about this market before, but it's amazing to me how my relationship to food has changed as a result of living here and using this market. I shop every single day, and I only buy what is fresh and in season. I bring home no plastic packaging or canned goods. The selection of meats, veg, fruit, and fish is staggering. I'm going to seriously miss this when I return home. To go from a daily selection of 25 different species of fresh fish glistening on a tarp to eyeing dusty cans of tuna on the shelf at the Bowen General Store is going to be a major culture shock.

Under Stanley's watchful eye, we purchased several Karimeen, or "Pearl Spot" fish for Gigi's preparations that day. These fish are very popular here, and its easy to see why. They grow in the brackish backwaters in large numbers. Karimeen are a little bony, but the meat is very sweet tasting. They are curried sometimes, but when deep-fried whole, the wee bones become crunchy and edible. There are several women that sell Karimeen and prawns at the market. They are a boisterous bunch, and the competition for customers is stiff. There must be some sort of target painted on my shirt, because as soon as I show up in the market courtyard, there is a noisy commotion and a series of frantic hand gestures, most of which I interpret to be friendly, in an effort to attract me to their particular pile of oceanic offerings. The woman that we bought the fish from set to work expertly separating the scales from the skin using a rusty looking, but extremely sharp, knife. She cut away the gills of the Karimeen, giving the poor buggers the appearance of a permanent goofy smile. Much like my own. How these women crouch like this day after day in the heat, surrounded by a growing halo of flies amidst a heap of rapidly ripening seafood is truly beyond me. Yet there they are, day after day after day. These people are tough.

Once back at Stanley and Gigi's, we went to work. I set up all my camera and sound gear, while Laurel helped Gigi on with her wireless mic. Once all her prep was done, Gigi excused herself for a moment. She soon emerged from her room, absolutely festooned with gold jewelry, and looking quite lovely in her green sari. Inside of a couple of hours she had completely assembled two delicious dishes, and I nipped next door to collect our taste testing crew. Miles, Isaac, and Emma arrived, and we all sat down to a fantastic lunch. Real home cooking, or as they call it here, "homely food". Made with love and care. Traditional. Fresh. Local.

Well, maybe not quite so local as what my other neighbour was hoping to catch...

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