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KITCHEN TALE | The Sand on the Shrimp and Fish

VARKALA, KERALA, INDIA—“If we are going to live together, our kitchen should not look like that,” said Tobi. The kitchen downstairs repelled him.

What could we expect from a kitchen we borrowed for some hours from two hippie men? They played the guitar, one taught yoga upstairs, while the other prepared spicy lassi downstairs. Curls crowned their head. Both wore dhoti. Both forgot to water a family of sweet basil outside our room. Both took turns in puffing on a joint on some languid nights. Tobi and the two even thought of preparing bhang lassi.

The kitchen looked, well, well-used to be euphemistic about it. Various plastics of vegetables, eggs, and rice occupied half of the little dining table. Bottles of condiments, some had been long empty, were left on empty spaces of the L-shaped counter. A plate covered some leftovers. When overused, the pipes under the lavatory leaked and flooded the muddled-looking floor.

There are too many “ifs” in a relationship, too many variables. But I relish in the little constants and truths we have right now: we both love food. I do the cooking. He does the slicing and the dishes. We are aware we were playing house in someone else’s kitchen. 

Between T and I’s conversation on our respective instagrammable dream kitchen, he sliced the tomatoes the way he wanted: the tendon-like meat right below the pedicle removed. For other spices and ingredients, he sliced them the way I told him. Garlic should be tiny, so we could eat it unnoticed. Ginger and onion thin and chewable. Sword chili some halved, some whole.

Wet Market in Varkala, Kerala

Fish, shrimp, and crab have a thin coat of sand in Varkala, Kerala, India.

While I stood in front of the stove I was afraid to turn on, sautéing, stirring the shrimp salted, herbed, dusted with sugar.

It took several washes to remove the sand on, in the shrimp’s exoskeleton. We bought too big a tuna for the two us; the knife too dull to cut and slice it. Grilling outside the house was not allowed in this part of India. The same rule is applied in Sri Lanka.

***

Sand coated the fish, shrimp, squid, and crab sold in the market. As a way of preserving their freshness. Male vendors bellowed for customers.

“Fresh! Fresh!” They shouted when they saw us, the only foreigners in a local crowd. We haggled. We walked on. We saw dried fish! I jumped for joy.

Women vendors in their saris occupied the back part of the market. They conversed with their customers, all women, in whispers.

My tongue could not be dehomed.

The vendor barked out his triumph when we decided to buy a tuna from him. Another vendor answered back with his own howl of victory. I wonder if the market had this inherent competition? Or did our strange presence animated them more than what was required of them?

Haggling with the shrimp vendor went through without much flare: she gave me a price, I haggled a bit, she shook her head (the yes and maybe in India). She added some more shrimp on the heap.

We reached a middleground.

Both vendors sealed the deal by wrapping their goods with a used newspaper.

***

“When you prepare the fish, close the doors and the window,” the yoga instructor said. Do fish smell that bad?

Or perhaps Melu the black tomcat would sneak in and aim for it. And the ever-present crows. They’re like the cats up in the air. Cat lovers, we did not mind Melu’s company.

“Where could we throw the head?” I asked.

“You don’ eat it?” asked back the yoga instructor.

“I do. But it is not as fresh.” Fish head is best for fish soup: the sole requirement: it should be fresh.

“We eat it here,” he sounded embarrassed, but he should not be.

“Me too. But we bought the wrong fish. It’s not fresh. And no more meat in it. Just the head. Can Melu eat it?”

Did I sound too demanding, I wonder. Did he get the message? I know where he was coming from.

He got the plate from me and went out, called out for Melu, crossed the thigh-length fence, and talked to Melu.

Sauted tomatoes, beans, and shrimps

Sauted tomatoes, beans, and shrimps

***

I fried some fish. I stewed some. Inun-unan with some curry leaves and coconut milk (we forgot to buy the coconut, we used coconut cream instead): two omnipresent ingredients found in Keralan food. For the rice, I made Persian rice (fresh lemon juice, a bit of salt and oil) with curry leaves. And dinuldog, pumpkin soup with coconut cream. Pans and plates filled up the little table in front of our room upstairs. I was full of excitement.

I cooked out of selfish reasons. My mouth craved for something familiar. Tobi thoroughly enjoyed India’s varied and interesting food scene. We had sampled practically the food of the middle class in mid-range restaurants and the food of the poor found along the street. I enjoyed them all. Tobi relished in them.


 

 


My tongue could not be dehomed.

So I cooked with the same playfulness I had in my own little kitchen.

“If we live together, we are going to be fat,” Tobi said. He could handle three plates. I could handle two.

There are too many “ifs” in a relationship, too many variables. But I relish in the little constants and truths we have right now: we both love food. I do the cooking. He does the slicing and the dishes. We are aware we were playing house in someone else’s kitchen.

There is food in our plates. And we dig in.

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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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2 Comments

  1. Teesh says:

    This is simply beautiful.

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