Sardines comfort after terrible Day One at India v Australia in Bengaluru

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Given their small size everthing is crisp and you eat them like chips. Crunchy. Fishbutty anyone?

I taste kiri hodhi in sauce Bearnaise. Should I call it Baranasi Source? I taste pol sambol in Grace Hot Pepper Sauce.

So when I ran into a bag of frozen sardines at No Frills for $3.50 memories of childhood treats of fried fish, pol sambol and fresh bread from the bakery up the road came flooding back. Outside the weather was brutal. The type where your ears freeze and fall off and dogs carry them off for TV snacks. Yet. Buses still ran. I was out of toilet paper. The trip had to be made. I could’ve easily chickened out Friday night after work and headed straight home. But a great big No Frills I’d never been to was around the corner. Those big huge ones you usually find closer to the City’s edge where the aisles are huge and the stocks are vast. For example, the No Frills at Dufferin Mall though it’s not at the city’s edge. It’s there to make sure all the Italian nonas, Portuguese and Chinese mamas are made happy. A deli, great veg. Good butcher section. Fresh fish. It’s a fiesta going to that place. And way cheaper than Loblaws. Those thieves. The one I went to at week’s end on Friday night was not up to that level but still it was strollable and any respite from stepping out into subarctic vortex-like chill was salvation.

Back to sardines. Little ones no more than 2-4 inches long. The best for me. Flash frozen while still jumping on the boat. Fried fish, bread and pol sambol is mothers milk to me. Not had often but cravings take me there. A treat my mother made for me. Just for me. Not with sardines but with Salayas a.k.a. Belt Fish in Chinatown. A very bony fish with sweet tasting flesh best had with a crusty loaf and pol sambol doused with fresh lime juice. She’d make it for me before heading out in the morning to teach and sending me off to school lighting up my day as I walked into daily confusions. Back to sardines in the  hear and now.

Stocked up with toilet paper and fish at No Frills. The berries were just not worth having. Puny and pricey. Ridiculously pricey. The bus did not take long so dogs couldn’t have a treat of my frozen earlobes. Got home. Threw the bag of fish in the freezer and hit the sack to catch some sleep before the massacre to come via live-stream from Bengaluru at 11:00p.m. After Pune we’ve all been worried if India had lost it’s way. On Saturday night in EST it had. Fortunately I kept falling asleep through the night so the horror was seen through a snow globe of sleep and weary limbs. Yes in Pune Kohli was out for zero. He did twelve times better Saturday in Bengaluru. He was out for 12. And all of the Indian team have 189 to show for it. It’s subarctic outside. The neighbour is spewing cheap dope smoke through the wall and the window is open so I don’t smell that shit. I hate my life.

I keep waking up all night long on Day One. Throughout the night hearing Ravi Shastri still sounding all upbeat. Why can’t they sound funereal. To match the proceedings. That’s what kills me these commentators. Always upbeat. Drives you to drink at 4:00a.m. you know. As in a nightmare saw the last wicket fall. And in a continuing nightmare Aussies are 40 and no wickets fallen at end of Day One. Hell. That’s what you call a rough night at cricket with or without drinking. The salvation was sleep at 6:05a.m. on Saturday.

Still little sleep to be had and up at 10:30a.m. with sparkling light through my huge windows. A clear blue sky harassing sleep and still frigid out. Very frigid. Violently so. Makes one thankful to be inside. I wanted more sleep but wanted comfort more after last night’s hell. Best to mix some dough and get more sleep. One thing led to another. A basic focaccia was made. Fish was fried and sandwiches were had. Papers were read in bed. A holiday was taken away from the world. Fried sardines on fresh bread with dousings of Grace Hot Pepper Sauce.

Pics: Time travel to Kotahena circa 1970 by way of fish, chillies and bread. The horror of an awful Day One in Bangaluru was temporarily forgotten. Click on photos for gallery with captions and guidance on frying fish.

So. How to fry fish. Small fish especially. Or any fish cut up. In Portugal sardines run from May into as late as December. Here in Toronto if you live anywhere near little Portugal you’ll smell them grilling as the weather warms making you crazy. The fatter the sardine the better is what I’ve heard. That’s how the Portuguese allegedly do it. Which is fine enough.

Balapitiya where my father hails from down south is also a town where many fisherfolk inhabit or did when we used to go there as children. Mendis, Zoysa, Silva are the names. Portuguese derivatives or direct descendants one may argue, or not. Those mad seafaring folk. Remnants of the  Portuguese colonizers. These wild seafaring cousins of mine and allegedly of Sinhala Buddhist clans. A type of small Tuna is very famous in that area. Balaya. Though my father’s family wouldn’t dare kill a fish (though they ate them from the market) and no meat was ever cooked in their home my father grew up to be an avid angler and hunter. I can say I know a thing or two about good fish.

Small sardines or similar fish, be it anchovies, herrings or small fish from the same family are beloved. Often deep fried. Basic seasoning that goes into it is a liberal amount of turmeric powder, fresh ground black pepper, fresh ground dried red chillies with sea salt (or use kosher). This is the general recipe for all fish that is fried in my family. And as soon as it comes out of the deep frying pot you drain it on newsprint or paper towels. Season some more with salt in case it needs that. Douse it in fresh lime (there were no lemons in the Ceylon I grew up in). When frying small fish the entire point is to make it crunchy so the entire fish and bones is edible. The same treatment is given to chunkier and larger fish. These small fish are ideal as small fish go so you can eat the entire fried fish, bones and all. However the Portuguese sardine tradition seems to go for the fattest sardine. But what do I know.

Fried sardine sandwiches – Makes about five sandwiches which will serve two to three unless you are really really hungry and depressed after a bad night at cricket.

Ingredients:

About 10-15 very small sardines (each about 4-5 inches long)

Oil for deep frying

Teaspoon or more Turmeric powder

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

Dry red chillie flakes

Sea salt crystals (or in powder form)

Grace Hot Pepper Sauce (or similar like Tabasco) – alternatively use fresh Lime/Lemon juice

Good crusty loaf of bread for about five sandwiches. Or fresh focaccia. See link to recipe below.

Margarine or butter.

How to: For about five sandwiches I used fresh baked focaccia which gives the sandwich some heft. Use any good crusty bread cut into thick slices. You will need three to four fish per sandwich. As an introduction all you need is liberally buttered bread, seasoned fish as described and then deep fried, Grace Hot Pepper Sauce or similar. Or just use fresh lime/lemon juice. If no hot sauce you can up the dry red chillie seasoning. I’ve become very fond of the Grace Hot Pepper Sauce option because you simply splash it on and it’s perfect. I’ve come to like it even better than the lime/lemon juice on fish. Also saves the trouble of citrus remnants sitting around in the fridge. Not to downplay importance of citrus juice on fried fish or any fish but this works. Trust me.

First preheat oven to 350F.

If using frozen fish make sure they are singly frozen. Place in bowl in cold water and they will defrost. Keep changing the water every ten minutes or so and ensure it’s really cold. Takes about 20 minutes at most. As they defrost carefully remove the scales using your thumbnail. Don’t break the skin beneath the scales. Gut the fish using tips of fingers by pulling out the gills and intestines. Rinse in cold water. Drain and dry gently using paper towels. Place in a dry bowl.

Add the seasonings to cleaned fish. First roughly grind up the dry red chillie flakes with salt in a small mortar and pestle. The salt will act as an abrasive to make it easier. Not to powder it but a rough grind so there’s still texture. Add it to the fish along with turmeric and fresh ground black pepper. Lightly mix with fingers.

Ensure oven preheated to 350F.  Get yourself an oven proof tray to keep the fried fish hot and place in oven. Once oven is ready heat oil to 375F in a deep pot. Fry in small batches of no more than four or five fish. Fry till crispy and brown. Drain on paper towels. Don’t over fry then it gets too stringy. As soon as the oil is drained (a minute or two) transfer to tray in oven to keep hot and keep frying till you’re done with the entire batch. Transfer to oven as they drain.

If using focaccia cut into sandwich sized rectangles where 3-4 whole fried fish can fit in. Or slice a good crusty loaf and butter the slices. Lay about 3-4 fish per sandwich laying it flat on one slice. Douse fish with hot sauce. If you don’t have hot sauce fresh lemon or lime juice will do. If no hot sauce make sure to increase the amount of red dry chillies in the seasoning. That is unless you are not keen on it being too hot.

Eat while the fish is still hot in between the slices. Would be great with drinks or a big pot of tea on a lazy weekend with the newspapers.

Focaccia recipe via New York Times: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1014533-whole-wheat-focaccia

You can use any oil. For this I used sesame oil (the South asian type not the Chinese oil which is too strong).

Pics and recipe by Renuka Mendis.

Toronto, March 5, 2017

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