I am probably the worst food critic. I don’t scrutinise my food. I never intend to guess the names of all the ingredients used in the making. And neither do I visit the kitchen quizzing the cook about her recipes, nor do I take even a short, curious glimpse to see what’s being made. For me, what matters is the end product. Prepared. Right there on the dining table. Ready to be savoured. And hence I have so much time to think and ponder when I eat, instead of using it on analysing and studying the food. I let my mind wonder. Like the other afternoon, when I sat to eat ‘rui bhaja’ — with rice and a few drops of ghee on it –I thought about our love for fish. Why do we love fish so much? We are known as ‘Mechho Bangali’. There are, in fact, many types of mechho Bangalis. We are all Mechho Bangalis all right, but your reason for being a Mechho Bangali may be entirely different from mine! Which breed of Mechho Bangali are you?
Mechho Bangali by fate
“I will gladly trade you my fishing net for your city life,” Johnny, my cousin who lived in our ancestral home in Khitirpara, Bikrampur used to say. But for me – being an urbanite – the rural landscape has always been inviting. The lush greenery and (more importantly) the dense network of canals and the infinite floodplains seem like a part of heaven.
Back in my childhood, Johnny and I used to go fishing. For me, it was all charming and exciting. For him, it was routine work.
Khitirpara is not far off from the mighty Padma. Moreover, the village boasts numerous ponds. The canal is a main route of commute. In monsoon, one water body merges into another, and people often find it easier to use boats than any other form of transportation.
This village is not an exception. Bangladesh has innumerable water bodies — large and small, permanent and temporary.
Hence, the bounty of fish is incredible. It is only natural that Bengalis have centred their diet on fish. As the culinary expert Shawkat Osman, in his book, Recipes from the Rannaghor, noted, “From the beginning of time to this day, Bangladesh’s water bodies have been our magic larder: without plough and pay, there has been — and there still is — in the lakes, rivers, beels, ponds and the Bay a ready supply of all sorts of fish for man to catch and woman to cook.”
For Johnny, catching and eating fish is second nature.
“I don’t remember when I began fishing. As long as my memory serves, I am always catching something or the other for the family. Fish is easily available,” he says.
Geography and climate have made him and millions of others Mechho Bangali by fate.
Mechho Bangali by choice
It is destiny, working through geographical and climatic conditions, that has made us Mechho Bangali. But destiny did not entirely force it upon us: we love eating fish! Numerous Bengalis have made it a part of their diet and lifestyle willingly.
Nur Mohammad, a lecturer of a university who resides in Dhanmondi, is one such fish fanatic. He sometimes leaves the house at about three in the morning to go to Mawa Ghat, a place outside the capital city. The reason behind his odd comings and goings? Fish!
“Mawa Ghat is located on the banks of the Padma. The fish market there has fresh supplies from the river, including hilsa, which is my personal favourite. I reach there by sunrise to buy fish,” he informs.
The hilsa is a matter of fascination. Famed recipes like ‘ilish polau’ and ‘shorshey ilish’ — with their enticing smell and taste – have captured a special place in every Bengali’s heart.
Nur Mohammed also goes to the wholesale market of Karwan Bazaar at dawn. “The place is buzzing with people. Fish are even put on auction, and other than retailers, there are general people like me who go there,” he adds.
Mechho Bangali by tradition
The love and fascination has seeped through our culture and social norms. So much so that even the rare, peculiar fellow who doesn’t enjoy fish also succumbs to being a Mechho Bangali once in a while, as many rituals and rites include fish.
Niaz Zaman wrote in her book, Bosha Bhat to Biriyani: The Legacy of Bangladeshi Cuisine, about a ritual in a Bengali wedding ceremony that involves carp. “A large rui or a pair of rui, occasionally decorated as bride and groom are sent with sweet yoghurt to the bride’s house on the day of the gaye holud.
Traditionally, some money is put inside the mouth of the fish for the person who will cut the fish.”
Meanwhile, Shawkat Osman wrote in his book about the usage of the term ‘machher bazaar’. “When a large number of people congregate in any unlikely place, we call it a ‘machher bazaar’ (a fish market), illuminating the fact that fish markets are indeed the most popular and noisy place in the country.”
There is no escaping from the ‘influence’ of fish. Even if you do not eat fish at all, it is still likely you are a Mechho Bangali — at least by tradition.
Mechho Bangali by acquired taste
Granted, for many people, the flavour of fish may not feel very enticing at first. It might take a little time.
As a child, I confess, I was not a big fan of it. But my mother challenged me to the intricate task of separating the bones from the fish (‘maach bachha’, that is). “You will become good at math,” she promised. Was it because of the nutritional value or that the task required some patience and focus?
Not just mathematics, fish also made appearances in our junior literature books. We all memorised a famous poem, an excerpt of which goes: “… Panta ami chai na/Puti maach pai na/Ekta jodi pai/Omni Dhore Ghapush ghupush khai”
Meanwhile, children and even many adults fear the Mechho Bhoot: a ghostly spirit fond of fish, which often tampers in the kitchen, stealing or haunting fishermen for their catch.
With so much madness, stories, theories and (of course) fish around us, every Bengali’s palate, sooner or later, becomes acceptable to it. Eventually, many of those who don’t like fish initially also fall in love with it at some point.
On the other hand, today, the Bengali palate is an evolved one. It has learned to enjoy a meal at posh eateries, with the menu serving fish and chips, fish steak, mussels, fried calamari and so on. What a journey from the conventional and long-established fish recipes! These are mere additions, though: we still love the classics. From the Mechho Bangali by fate to the modern Mechho Bangali, our love for fish continues strongly.
And to celebrate that love, we will bring our best to the table this Bengali New year. “Esho he Boishakh, esho esho.”