This curry was like a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that I’d once heard…especially the last movement, with everything screaming and banging ‘Joy.’ It stunned, it made one fear great art. My father could say nothing after the meal (Anthony Burgess)
‘Curry,’ once upon a time, used interchangeably to refer to Indian food, does not even feature in the vocabulary of India, a country which possesses diverse languages with an infinite plethora of dialects. In fact, curry is derived from the Tamil word, ‘kari’ or spiced sauce, a thin- soup like spiced dressing served in southern India, in parlance since 1500 BCE. Another school of thought believes that the origin of curry, lies in ‘kadhi,’ a yoghurt based dish from India’s north-western region, where the British had entered India through the city of Surat in the 17th century and were probably exposed to kadhi, much before the cuisines from South India. Whatever be the origin, the anglicized version of the word ‘curry’ as we know today surfaces around the 14th century, when an English Cookbook, The Forme of Cury, was published in 1390s, though ‘Cury’ draws its etymology from ‘Cuire,’ a French word meaning ‘to cook.’ It is only from the 17th century, however, that recipes for curry or kari emerge in the European market, first in a Portuguese cookbook and then in a British cookbook, by Hannah Glasse in 1747.
Every Indian household exudes the aromas of meditatively prepared curries, and each part of India delves into its own unique spices and condiments that result in cuisines quite distinct and diverse. In a land like India, where rivers have acted as the veins and arteries of civilisation, and a space whose peninsula is surrounded by water bodies on three sides, it is hardly surprising that fish curries have existed in the popular realm of food culture. Fishing is an activity that pre-dates the onset of civilisation, which suggests that consuming fishing was a common activity. Remains of fish bones, fisheries and fishing equipment have been excavated from the Harappan Civilisation, one of the earliest civilisations (often included as part of Indian history), thus suggesting that perhaps fish was widely consumed.
Interestingly, James Trager, in his 1970 book The Enriched, Fortified, Concentrated, Country-Fresh, Lip-Smacking, Finger-Licking, International, Unexpurgated Foodbook mentions the seasoning habits of this fifth-century BCE civilisation. He writes that the people belonging to Harappan Civilisation used mortars and pestles to pound the sun-dried “seeds of mustard, fennel and most especially cumin and the rinds of tamarind pods” to create the “earliest curry powder.” There is a possibility that such a preparation of curry powder was applied during cooking of fish, though much is not known, since the script of this civilisation remains undeciphered to date. While it is important to note that a modern terminology is haply used for an ancient spice blend, the seasoning can also be seen as a precursor to preparation of curries (also termed as proto-curries by archaeologists).
Myths and Epics too give a glimpse of prevalence of fish curries in India. For example, in the Ramayana, composed around 100 BCE, there is a mention of a feast which involves the making of a complex-tasting fish in a sauce smeared with cardamom, cumin, cloves, black pepper and salt which was served with rice. Document works like the Arthashastra (an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft economic policy and military strategy), written by Kautilya during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (between 2nd and 3rd century BCE) mentions the stocking up of meat and fish in cities in case of a situation of famine. The Arthashastra also mentions that rice and dal (lentils) formed the staple diet and that it was accompanied by supplements like meat and fish curries. Spices and herbs used to prepare these curries include long pepper, black pepper, ginger, cumin seeds, white mustard, and coriander among others. However, as mentioned earlier, it is only through European travel and conquests that knowledge about curries, including fish curries, was transported across the world. For example, a Dutch traveller’s account from an early 16th century visit to India mentions a sour tasting brothy fish served with rice. This preparation was known as ‘carriel,’ which is thought to be another possible etymology for the word ‘curry.’
Over centuries, a variety of different preparations of fish curry has marked the landscape of India, thereby making fish curries ubiquitous in the country. Some of the most famous preparations include Machher Jhol from Bengal, Malabar Matthi Curry from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Goan Fish Curry from Goa, Masor Tenga from Assam, Fish Curry with Lotus stems from Kashmir, Bommidayila Pulusu from Andhra Pradesh and Malvani Fish Curry from Maharashtra. Machher Jhol (in a gravy or curry) is a simple Bengali preparation that involves frying the fresh water carp or rui maach in mustard oil before adding it to the gravy. Variations of Malabar Matthi Curry can be found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where semi stewed fish with vegetables is prepared with coconut milk or tamarind juice. The Goan fish curry includes ingredients like coconut, garlic, tamarind and red chillies. The Assamese Masor Tenga involves marinating the Rohu fish in turmeric powder, fish masala and mustard oil. Fish curry in Kashmir is served along with Lotus stems made in desi ghee and flavoured with whole spices and cinnamon. Bommidayila Pulusu is a traditional Andhra fish curry. Andhra cuisine is known to be cooked with a generous amount of spices and aromatics. And finally, the Malvani Fish Curry from Maharashtra is prepared with coriander seeds, dried red chillies, tamarind pulp and coconut.
Diverse fish curries that populate India thereby carry the cultural traditions of different regions, making each variety distinctly delicious. And each peculiar preparation of fish curry can leave its consumer absolutely mesmerized, much like the father in the Anthony Burgess’ quote, who could not find words to describe the delectable curry that was served to him!