On that recent video, on NBC Asian America, when I spoke about my latest book, I mentioned a Shrimp dish with a complicated history – one that reflected the coming together of two or perhaps even three dietary restrictions, in the same kitchen.
But the kitchen does not merely exist and dishes simply do not appear - there are stories behind them, and this is more of the story of that shrimp dish.
My parents' farm is along the west coast of India, and we would spend every holiday and vacation there since I was 8 or 10. As I was a child, I remember one old fisherwoman, nicknamed Kolin Maushi (or Fisherwoman Aunty) who would stop by each day on the way to the market with her fresh catch of fish.
This tall, frail-looking skinny woman deliberately took a detour from the main road, and would walk onto the property via the back entrance, to the house, screaming in her crackled voice,
“ताई, कोलंबी घे-तूस-का आजला? टवटवीत हय, ताजि ताजि... ये बघ?”
(sister, will you like to buy some prawns today? They are still jumping. They are so juicy. Come see?)
Her faint shrill voice traveled easily among the trees, and she had effortlessly announced her wares to the household. Her voice brought the farm to a standstill. It seemed like a good reason to stop work and see what ‘Maushi’ had brought today, everyone wanted to score a bargain for their lunches too. Two stray tabbies would relinquish their perches and follow her greedily down the path to the back door of the kitchen, their little tails swishing through her feet as she kept shoo-ing them away for fear of tripping. Kolin Maushi never tripped.
I would watch from papa’s old bedroom window as she sashayed her way along the pebbled path lined with tall coconut trees, the path that connected Gaju’s quarters to the main house. Gaju had long been our manny, and was now the caretaker of the farm.
Kolin Maushi's barefoot walk had a predictable pace, she had walked about two miles from the coast this morning and had another mile more to go, before she walked all the way back to her house with a few rupees and some groceries for the day. Her large hollow hoop earrings, traditional to the indigenous Koli (fishing) community of the region, swung from her long earlobes, matching her gait. She had balanced a shallow bamboo basket on her head, her mid-riff exposing her malnourished and glossy dark skin, her waist bearing the marks of her well-worn kasta, a style of the nav-wari saree that was tight around the buttocks and waist. A wad of the inner saree end was tightly tucked and exposed to one side of her navel, it doubled as her wallet, and her spot to keep her tobacco and chuna (lime paste). She wore two green glass bangles on each wrist, and a mangalsutra of black beads with a fleck or two of gold.
It was only 10.30 a.m., the main market was still another mile away, and wouldn't get busy until 11.00 a.m. She would have to make it there to get the best clients first. How many times had she walked this way, one wondered. Each day of her adult life perhaps. The mere thought of walking six miles in the summer heat with a basket of fish on ones head was exhausting to my city brain.
Mummy and Gaju would turn off the stoves in the kitchen, knowing fully well that this may take a few more minutes than just a quick peek into her basket. Kolin Maushi huffed and puffed, sharing her obvious tiredness with anyone within earshot. She must have been atleast 60 when I was about 12 or thirteen. I would hear the lids of utensils opening and closing as Gaju checked for any tea leftover from their breakfast, he warmed it up for her and brought out a small cup. We gathered in the front verandah, where there was room for ‘viewing’. A ceiling fan was flicked on, mummy found a chair, a steel tray was brought out for the purchases, I would perch myself on the granite table, and we would all wait for Kolin Maushi to find a good spot to sit and share her wares.
We all gathered around her, the basket opened quickly – much to the delight of the two cats who could perhaps live on the aroma of the fresh fish. The dogs could care less. Her aging basket held an assortment of fish, sometimes a portion of shrimp, another of large prawns, a lobster or two if we were lucky, and a few small pomfret, bombil (Bombay duck) and other assorted seafood, a portion of the catches of the day represented in her little basket.
The basket was on display for a few minutes before she began to chat again, telling us how difficult it had been for her to procure the small portion of prawns just for us, since us city folks were in town. This was her daily spiel. And it was a Wednesday, a day free of dietary and religious restrictions, urging us to get some fish. Little did she know that the moment I heard her coming in, I knew I was going to convince Mummy to buy some shrimp. We didn’t haggle with her, not much anyway.
The farm hands got a small vata or portion of scallops or tiny shrimp to add to their lunch stew, and we got some prawns, or shrimp and perhaps even some pomfret if the fish was larger than a salad plate. Gaju would pick some fish for his own meals.
Kolin Maushi sat on her haunches in the verandah, sipping on the steaming tea out of a little steel glass or an old cup, fanning herself with the end of her saree, picking out scraps and bits for the cats to keep their faces out of the basket, visibly relieved for this brief respite.
About half an hour later, we had bought a portion of fish for lunch and dinner, gossiped about the village affairs, perhaps mummy had even put out a call for a new day-maid or kitchen help. Sometimes mummy would send her on her way with a few ripe mangoes or a coconut or offer her a few fronds of coconut for her to make a woven shelter for her home to keep out the sun or create a windbreak for their home from the lashes of the monsoon rain. Someone from her household could pick that up in the evening.
Her load lightened, Kolin Maushi would sashay her way out of the farm again just as she came, refreshed, her load lightened a little, the cats fed, everyone dreaming of a good lunch. She had earned a few rupees without much fuss, for the village market was cut-throat – and stale fish never brought in good money. She refreshed her mouthful of a pinch of tobacco in her inner lip, and was on her way again.
Within the hour, Gaju had cleaned the shrimp, and the fish, a simple stew was prepared. The ingredients for the stew are a pantry staple, as in most Indian homes. The pomfret was converted into a pan-fried dish for lunch and dinner.
Instead of laboring over rotli, Gaju would commission one of the farm hands' to bicycle over to the market for bakery fresh bread and a hand of good bananas’ if we were expecting my maternal grandfather for lunch – who was vegetarian. We would set aside a portion of the stew sans the shrimp for him, tempering it with a few mustard seeds to begin and adding banana’s when he was ready to eat.
This stew-sauce adaptation also worked if we had reason to expect my paternal grandmother, a Jewish woman. Although she seldom visited unannounced, if there was any reason she would have come, she could have a choice of the banana, or a portion of pomfret for her meal.
Seafood purchases at the farm used to be relatively calm, an event in themselves. It was a social time, everyone gathered, stopped, talked, pretended to haggle for a bargain and parted happy. I would think that Kolin Maushi is now long gone, and no one walks onto the farm hoping to sell us their fish anymore. That was a different time.
But the shrimp dish we made then remains in our kitchen even now. It is simple and easy and uses pantry staples. It reminds me not only of Kolin Maushi who would make the trek each day she knew that our kitchen was free of weekly religious dietary restrictions, who spiced up our quiet farm afternoons with deliberate gossip, but also of my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother who became part of the conversation during the purchase, even if they were not around.
And it also reminds me of Gaju, who learned very quickly that I would eat shrimp any day of the week if Kolin Maushi had taken the trouble to bring us a fresh catch. Since we never learned her name, this post honors her as well.
Kolmbi: Spicy Shrimp in Tomatoes / Vegan Option: Spicy Bananas’ in Tomatoes
Makes: Eight servings
Cook Time: 30 minutes
2 tbsp oil
½ cup yellow or white onions, diced
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1½ tsp cayenne pepper powder
¾ tsp cumin powder
¾ tsp coriander powder
½ cup tomatoes, diced
¼ cup water
1-1½ lbs shelled and deveined uncooked shrimp or prawns OR
3-4 just-ripe bananas, cut into 1” disks
½ tsp salt (or to taste)
¼ cup cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)
Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onions and sauté until lightly golden. Then add the ginger and garlic paste and sauté until fragrant. Add the turmeric, cayenne pepper powder, cumin powder and coriander powder. Add the diced tomatoes and water, and let this mixture cook on medium-low for a few minutes until it becomes a thick sauce. Add the shrimp or prawns, mix well and lightly cover to cook for about 5-7 minutes until the shrimp is cooked. Season with salt and garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve hot with warm bread of choice.
For vegan option:
Temper the oil with 1 tspn mustard seeds and follow the recipe as is. Add sliced bananas in place of shrimp. Serve with a side of daal, and hot rice or with fresh fulka rotli.
This recipe and others are included in my latest book: Not For You, available in both digital form for e-Readers, and in print (from the website).