This is Samanth Subramanian's debut novel and what a debut! Samanth is a journalist by profession and he uses the narrative version of journalism to full efect in "Following Fish"
India is a country with a long and diverse coastline and as the author says Fish inhabit the heart of many worlds - food of course, but also culture, commerce, sport, history and society" The author travels to 7 locations spread across the Indian coast (+ Hyderabad which is landlocked), interacts with locals, investigates a story special and specific to that location and then pens it down for our reading pleasure.
Any book which covers an aspect of my hometown Mangalore favourably, will definitely be recommended by me. :) But "Following Fish" offers 8 more reasons (chapters) for me to recommend it!
Starting with West Bengal, where he sets off in search of the perfect Hilsa ("If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, hilsa would always play on centre court"), he is initiated into the differences between Bangladeshi & Bengali hilsa as he traipses across Howrah fish market & Kolaghat market and eats at places as diverse as The Park in Kolkatta, Oh Calcutta, an eatery on Mirza Ghalib Road and a shack in Diamond Harbour. He does throw in a few recipes from Chef Vasanthi of The Park (Warning" most of them don't mention any quantities) for good measure.
In Hyderabad, he visits the Bathini Goud family - dispensers of the annual "Goud fish treatment" for asthamatics. Exploring the history of the treatment and the myths around its origin, as a good journalist, he also investigates the naysayers theories and facts and chronicles the entire event from the initial pooja at the ancestral Goud house to the public dispensary at the Exhibition grounds in Nampally.
In Manapadu in Tamil Nadu (TN), Samanth researches the dynamics of social relationships between Parava Catholics and Kayalar Muslims since the 16th century, how historical Hindu customs are still followed by the Paravas with a Catholic veneer and the declining importance of the Jathi Thalaivan in society. It is here that the author encounters Aruni - a researcher of fish as a food in TN who introduces him to fish podi - a dried fish powder peculiar to that part of the country.
His quest to discover Kerala through its toddy (local alcohol) shops is delightful. "We stumbled onto the most ideal method (to root out the best toddy shop in town) by chance - commandeer an auto rickshaw and solicit its drivers guidance. The driver will be so struck by appearance of people after his own heart - people who will get out of an early morning train, exit the station & ask for a toddy shop - that he may even forget to inflate his rate." The cuisine of toddy shops in Kerala has a style, nature and flavour of its own, normally consisting of extremely spicy fried food which would necessiate the consumption of even more toddy. While the Karimeen/Pearlspot is the most famous fish in Kerala, there are a lot of other varieties on offer too.
In Mangalore, he initially flounders in his quest for the perfect Manglorean fish curry, but soon with the help of friends he discovers eateries that are hidden gems, known to the locals and discovers tawa fried fish, rawa fry and other delicacies too. His encounter with Vasudev Boloor (President of multiple fishermens associations) leads to an impromptu meal of home cooked Manglorean fish curry which any Manglorean would know is infinitely better than anything that a restaurant can ever serve.
In Mumbai, he meets with anglers Baptista & Danny Moses. He joins Baptista & his adult nephews on a fishing trip to their favourite ocean spot in quest of the elusive and highly spirited sailfish. He also interacts with the original settlers of Mumbai - the Koli fisherfolk who are more weloming of "outsiders" than the more violent political parties of this age. The kolis also initiate him into the subtle differences between Koli, Gomantak & Malvani styles of cooking.
In Goa, he encounters different kinds of fishermen - those who indulge in it purely as a hobby, (angling is a Goan pastime) and those dependent on it for their livelihood. His conversations with the locals only seems to emphasise that the governments greed and inefficiency is completely destroying the fisherman's habitat.
The boat builders of Mangrol and Veraval in Gujarat are his last stop.Their long history of boat design is even suspected to extend to the Indus Valley civilisation. While the principles of boat building appear unchanged, modern technologies have been put to good use to help speed up some of the processes while others like caulking the boat for water tightness have remained unchanged for hundreds of years..
Samanth Subramanian has a wonderful, distinctive style of writing with a wry sense of humour and an eye for detail. There is an investigative depth to his research and a passion for the subject he covers.
This book is an easy read but don't let that mislead you into dismissing it lightly. It contains a wealth of useful information for the foodie traveller and a cook who is comfortable with grandma style recipes (a pinch of this, a dash of that etc)
If you love food or travel or reading about food or travel, this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I look forward to more books from him.