The darken sky thick it blows
Troubled with storms & big with showers
No colorful gleam of light appears
But nature pours forth all her tears
(originally written by Benjamin Hodges, 1792, here reproduced from the book Spice, by Marjorie Shaffer)
Monsoon….the most beautiful name a season can have. But really, the monsoon in India is more than a season, it’s an experience. It brings with it a lot of things…fun, fear, rage, silence, anger, devastation and relief at the same time. On my commute to work in Bethesda, MD when I hear the local weather forecasters make doomsday predictions about two inches of rain, I allow myself a little chuckle about one man’s meat being another man’s poison and my mind goes back to late summer afternoons in my small hometown. After many days and weeks of scorching heat, the gaping mother earth is waiting for some relief. The fields are cracked and wide open and the farmers are waiting eagerly for the rain to moisten the fields. And then, just when another power cut is about to make you lose all hope that summer will ever end, hope appears on the horizon. You know that monsoon is coming when the afternoon turns pitch dark and silent for a while and then the sky crackles with bright silver lightning and deafening thunder. The first few rain drops hit the parched soil, releasing the unmistakable fragrance we Bengalis call “sNoda gandho” that rain outside of India has never been able to recreate for me.
Soon these first drops will be followed by torrential downpours, as if someone is pouring millions of gallons of water down from the sky. Everything becomes a blur. Sometimes the rain lasts for days, the consequence being overflowing rivers, ponds and lakes. As a kid, monsoon was fun…pure fun as long as there was no school. I used to visit my mama-baari (maternal uncle’s house) very often. During heavy rainy days, they neighborhood ponds used to overflow and we were up and out for catching fish with my cousins and neighborhood kids. All we had was either a gamcha (thin traditional Indian towel) or a chhNera kapor (piece of a used cloth). We used them as makeshift nets to catch the fish. The poor fish, confused by the overflowing of their home ponds, used to literally be on the streets, very helpless and with no clue where they were going. We, the greedy people used to stand there waiting for the ponds to overflow and the fish to come wiggling helplessly to our nets. No, we didn’t get the big carps like rui or katla, they were too big to succumb to the rain. Mostly they were small fish like pnuti, lyata or koi, which was probably in accordance with the laws of nature as we were too small to catch large fish anyway. Believe me, the joy of catching a fish this way is a hundred times greater than buying it from the market. It was almost like a festival. People of all ages would be on the street with a makeshift net and running all around to try their luck. All rain-soaked, happy, overjoyed, relieved and excited.
Anyhow, life moves on but some things never change. Here I am two decades later, in a suburban neighborhood in the US with no overflowing rivers or ponds but still waiting eagerly for a day which somewhat looks and feels like monsoon. My fish comes from Bangla Bazaar, frozen and wrapped in clear plastic. But, as I love to daydream, for today I am back in my hometown eating bhaat and machher jhol (fish curry) made with fish freshly caught with a gamchaa on a rainy monsoon day.
Fish steak: Preferably rui/Tilapia will do as well 5-6 pieces
Whole cumin seeds: 2 tbsp.
Whole coriander seeds: 1 tbsp.
Turmeric: 2 tsp.
Whole dried red chili: 3-4 nos. (depending on how hot you want)
Green chili: 2 nos.
Kalojeere/onion seeds/kalonji/black cumin seeds: ½ tsp
Potato: 2 small
Pointed gourd/potol/parwal: 3-4 nos. If you get hold of the bigger one, 2 will be good)
Ridge gourd/Jhinge: one 12” piece or smaller
Eggplant/begun: optional: few pieces
Mustard or any other oil (Bengalis cannot cook without mustard oil)
Salt to taste
- Soak the cumin-coriander seeds along with the dry red chili in water for ½ n hour. Grind it to a fine paste. If you feel lazy, just mix the powders with water (the taste will never be the same but still be good)
- Marinate the fish with salt a I tsp. of turmeric powder for 15-20 minutes.
- Cut the vegetable in almost equal sizes (very important)
- Heat few table spoons of oil and shallow fry the vegetables. Do not deep fry them.
- In the same oil add the fish pieces and shallow fry them as well. Take them out and keep them aside.
- Again in the same oil add the kalojjere and slit green chilis. Saute them for few seconds (do not burn them, keep the flame medium).
- Add the spice paste and ½ tsp. of turmeric.
- Cook the spice paste until oil leaves the side of the pan.
- Add water and put the flame on high. Add salt (be careful, the gravy will reduce in volume, so adjust the salt later)
- When the gravy comes to a rolling boil, put the flame on medium high. Let it boil for several minutes.
- Put the vegetables and the fish.
- Cover for several more minutes until the fish and the vegetables are cooked.
- Uncover and let it boil if you want less liquid in the gravy. The consistency should be thin, but how thin will depend on your taste.