The rough textured cotton kora cloth was first cut and wrapped with tailorprecision around the bottle of freshly made fish pickle and the ends stitched together with jute thread using a thick 4 inch needle.
The large angular eye of the needle reminded me of an old elephant joke that was going viral in school – “How does one prevent an elephant from passing thru the eye of a needle?”
You tie a knot in its tail!
My grandmother not only made an excellent fish pickle but was a wizard at packing up the many bottles wrapped in cloth. She was parceling fish pickles to her children who lived in different cities.
My contribution which I enjoyed was to write the ‘To’ and ‘From’ addresses in block letters onto the cloth with coloured sketch pens. It was a thrill to watch the blue sketch pen ink spreading on cloth and to follow it up, highlighting the letters with red sketch ink. This made the address fonts stand out starkly in blue highlighted with red.
My next errand was to take these delicious fish pickle parcels on cycle to the post office nearby. Here the staff would delicately melt the red wax which dripped onto the white cloth and then the seal neatly pressed into the molten wax with Government authority. My late grandfather was the postmaster of the office and I had those little privileges as a grandson. The postal staff stretched that extra mile for me.
There were relaxed queues of folks (reminded me of the organized queues outside of any Beverage outlets nowadays in Kerala) making deposits in the postal savings bank, collecting pensions, sending and receiving monies from their loved ones and collecting letters and large parcels. The staff at the Pallithottam post office worked like a silent, well-oiled machine.
I collected the different location receipts imagining how marine sear fish caught fresh from the Arabian sea were pickled, packed and sent through different land routes by the postal department. Days later, these parcels of pickled joy would reach Ammumma’s children’s homes in Mumbai, Delhi, Mangalore where the flavours of the pickled searfish would explode as the family added it to their lunch or dinner fare,reminiscingthe easy going pace in hometown Kollam, the waves of the Arabian sea lapping the shoreline, and of grandmothers and the buzz of a home kitchen.
The large sear fish, that formed the base of a good, Kerala fish pickle, was handpicked by Ammumma fromthe wicker baskets set on top of dried, coconut tree palas with their tails sticking out of the basket ends. The two fisherwomen who came home almost everyday with marine fish had names and attitudes straight out of Archie comic books.
Veronica and Stella.
Veronica was dusky and strong. Her voice rang throughout the small neighbourhood as she screamed and haggled with granny early in the morning. Stella was like Archie’s Betty. Frail, fairskinned with a quiet voice, even though she haggled with granny for the price of fish. In the end, Veronica, Stella and granny were a happy bunch. The sale was done. The cash for the trade was collected on their way back home after their rounds. Their empty wicker baskets signaling a good day.
They sometimes had their noon lunch on the back porch of our house.
After a vigorous session of fish cleaning, surgeon like slicing, and washing up a whole searfish cut in pieces with rock salt in terracotta chattis. The searfish pieces shone like silver against the backdrop of black chattis.
The lunchtime gossip centredaround life in a fisher home, the commodities and prices at Prabhakaran’s local ration shop, of who came home on holidays to the neighbourhood, blah…blah…blah. This was Ammumma’s local newsline. The head, tails and some small parts of the sear would be stored in the freezer to emerge in a fiery, fishhead curry. The other cuts would go into the spicy red curry of the day, some for deep frying in coconut oil and the rest for making fish pickle that would travel across the country to reach Ammumma’s kids homes.
A whole sear fish buy meant Ammumma has her mind set on cooking up fish pickle.
Every Kerala student living in an outstation college hostel would have his or her own personal fish pickle story.
So would all the early non-resident Malyalees who were headed for the Gulf nations after a happy, well spent vacation. They would be carrying fish pickle for family and friends too. Horrifying mid flight disasters then that included how the juice of a fish pickle dripped down from the overhead handbagge rack and dripped onto the forehead of a co-passenger are now are laughed off now as pickle stories.
My fish pickle story in hostel ended briefly everytime Ammumma parcelled me one. Or if I brought one along after a Kerala home holiday. The whole bottle was polished off within an hour. Loaves of bread appeared out of nowhere, and the pickle was dumped into a large centerplate. All of us sat around it and before you could say Aachaar, it was over. It was literally fingerlicking good after all that drab hostel food. No matter what state one came from, everyone joined in and will remember a Mallu Fish Pickle story.
Made with love in a Kerala kitchen and eaten sansclass, caste or religion in a college hostel.
After decades, I was inspired by my cousin’s wife’s prawn pickle which she had made for her daughter studying in a Bangalore college. After she shared her mother’s recipe with me on a Whatsapp family group, it was time to cook up a prawn pickle in my home kitchen.
I headed out early in the morning at 6.30 a.m to the grand old Russel Market with my school mate who had dropped in after years. The market was buzzing with all kinds of fish. Even after all these years, inspite of fancy supermarkets and online fishvendors, Russel Market and its vendors still held their timeless charm.
The variety of fish, crabs and prawns threw me off focus. But I finally stuck to buying the fresh spread of small prawns (Naran) for Rs. 250 a kilo which they even deveined and removed the shells.
As I cooked the pickle with tips from my mother, I started reminiscing of glistening marine fish, the women who brought the catch home, of parcels and post offices and of grandmothers and home by the sea.
Phil Collins, then vocalist of GENESIS, sang his ode to a ‘Home by the sea’ adding the soundtrack thru my faithful Bluetooth speaker to the all the Kerala fish pickle stories that played in my mind while cooking. Like waves lapping a Kollam shoreline.
PRAWN PICKLE RECIPE
• 1 Kilo Small sized Naran prawns weighed before being deveined and shelled
• ½ teaspoon Turmeric powder
• 1 Tablespoon Kashmiri Chilli powder
• ½ Tablespoon Red Chilli powder (Optional)
• 4 Tablespoons Coconut Oil (Gingelly Oil)
• 2 Teaspoons of mustard seeds
• 20 pods of Garlic thinly sliced.
• 11/2 inch of finely chopped ginger
• 5-6 Green Chillies finely sliced
• 2 sprigs of curry leaves chopped fine
• ½ a cup of Vinegar
• ½ teaspoon of Asafoetida powder
• Salt to taste
• Sugar to taste
Marinate the prawns with salt & turmeric and keep aside for 10 to 15 mins.
Heat oil and fry prawns till golden brown & keep it aside.
Heat oil again & crack mustard seeds.
Add ginger, garlic, green chillies & curry leaves and sauté till golden brown.
Once done, add chilli powder as required (preferably Kashmiri chilli) asafoetida and mix well till the rawness leaves.
Fold in the fried prawns to this mixture.
Add the vinegar/ salt & sugar till you get the flavor right.
Keep aside to cool and store for 2 days before use. Or parcel it off to someone as a gift.
Tip: Use coconut oil if you are using the pickle immediately. If you are planning to store it Gingelly oil is the better option.
About the Author
Monu Danesh Surendran works for a retail organization in Bangalore and heads it online and branding division. He is a foodie by passion and therefore tries his hand at stuff in his home kitchen. While not dabbling in cooking during his days off he likes his music and of course trying out food. He prefers home cooked cuisine though restaurant fare guarantees a good outing with friends.
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