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The Business of Fish

16 Jan

This piece first appeared in the December 2014 issue of India Currents magazine. I’d love to hear your childhood food memories! Share? 🙂

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Among my earliest childhood memories is a shot of thrill up my spine on hearing a certain raspy, faraway voice calling “Paaplet! Kolmi! Bombil-waleeeaaay!”

That was Moti, our family fisherwoman for three generations, hawking the just-caught contents of her woven basket to a lane of Parsis willing to pay top rupee for their palates. Much hubbub would follow, as someone, typically a domestic or child tall enough to reach the window, was sent to wave her down. “Yete!” she’d screech, with all the decorum of a hurricane ripping through an island, and begin her ascent to our top-floor home, green glass bangles and thumping gait announcing her presence long before she huffingly-pufflingly made it.

Moti smelled of scales and salt and the sea, odors I came to associate with happiness. In a Parsi child’s life, especially one stereotypically expected to manage her own kitchen in adulthood, an education in fish is vital. The lessons of laal pani versus safed pani, and using your finger to scoop under the gills to check for freshness are Fish Purchasing 101 tips. The nose is your savviest instrument, and one as undiscerning as mine is a serious liability. Then there is a banquet of bliss to choose from—all those varieties of fresh and saltwater fish, seasonal and available the whole year through—bangra (mackerel) and raawas (salmon), boi (mullet marine) and boomla (bombay duck), and the thrill of discovering bonus gharab (roe) in one of your chosen future meals.

It is a messy business, the selection of fish. Not for those who aren’t accustomed to ooze and blood and scales. Its parts callously lopped into diagonal chunks, its silver-grey body glistening enticingly, a pre-purchase fish is a thing of beauty. It is here that I realize the staggering power of social conditioning, for a joyous childhood ritual that entails a dead creature’s guts can only be that.  Or perhaps it is a lesson in focusing on the end result: the perfect, well-seasoned accompaniment to a meal of dhandar. H.e.a.v.e.n.

A trusting rapport with your machhiwali is expected to be one of life’s most enduring relationships. And when she moves on to a better place, where crispy-fried boomlas (I’ve mentioned them three times already in 300 words, can you tell they’re a favorite?) are dished hot and fresh by harp-strumming cherubs, you know better than to mess with the line of succession—her daughter or niece will become your supplier. Our Lady of Piscine Perfection is now Moti’s niece Tanuja, who has discarded the colorful nauvaris of her Koli roots and the ginormous beaded nath of Moti’s era, but thankfully, none of the accent or the mannerisms that we almost expect of our fisherwomen.

It is a centuries-old communication, this unique and frequently amusing haggling between housecoat-clad Gujarati speakers and the shrill and shrewd sellers of fish. Odd words fly in Marathi, exclamations peak like stiff egg whites and many an eyebrow does a Prabhu Deva, with flung arms for company. Accusations of looting and starving little children are routinely hurled, as both parties bemoan a time when the catch was fresher, prices cheaper, and their respective communities were pretty much the only inhabitants of Bombay, apart from the Sahibs.

The last time I was in Bombay, I partook of this ritual gladly. From carrying out round thaals (plates) to pile the carefully-selected purchase on, to washing each piece carefully under running water, scrubbing the scales and poking fingers into icky crevices, anointing each piece with flour and salt, rubbing the mixture in, letting it sit 10 minutes, and then washing everything one more time, I was never more closely connected to my bloodline. It came to me easily, though it was the first time I had actually done it from beginning to end. I was a natural, I felt at ease. I had learned my lessons well from years of bearing witness.

Here in America, the process is supremely sanitized. Cleaned, deboned and ready to cook, artfully-arranged slices are put on display, eliminating consumer participation in so many crucial steps of the acquisition process. It reminds me of a time when a friend confessed she hated having a C-Section. “I feel cheated of a natural birth,” she had said, “I know I should be grateful for a healthy delivery, but I can’t help feeling duped.” Oddly enough, this is exactly how I feel walking into my neighborhood Safeway or Chinese supermarket—clinical, disconnected, disappointingly sterile.

I can imagine how hard this must be for vegetarians to comprehend. They are as much products of their socialization as I am of mine, but the human relationship to food is an intimate one, and in a gourmand community like mine, it includes passion, devotion, and obsession. Having incorporated so many elements not quite our own on the long road from religious refugees to a privileged, respected, and still relatively unknown minority, our cuisine and its methods are understandably something we Parsis are immensely proud of. (So if you have considered offering a thoughtless suggestion like “Why don’t you turn vegetarian?” please know we’re already debating how much spice to marinate your brain in for those breakfast cutlets tomorrow.)

From what I’ve learned in my score and 15 years on god’s bounteous earth, it is that life has a way of presenting precisely what you fight. So a fishless future isn’t the worst fate that can befall me.  (I’m so glad you can’t see my dilated pupils and crossed fingers right now.) But I also know that I am the honored carrier of the DNA of a long line of fin fans, and this—both the process and the end result— is one of my life’s joys.

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Fresh, Fun Food Phrases

20 May

Pardon my alliteration allergy as it gets the better of me again: a deadly, devastating disease that doggedly drives one dotty.  Today, because it’s my favorite day of the work week, because it’s the farthest day from Monday, and because Tuesday’s child is full of grace (at least in her insane imagination), I bring to you a fresh platterful of Parsi food phrases!

Ready? Set? Go!

Bhujelo papad nai bhongi sake“, cannot break a roasted papad.

Pronounced: bhoo-jay-low paa-pud nuh-i bhawn-gee suh-kay

Everybody who knows what a papad is (and for those who don’t, it is a very thin, crisp, disc-shaped cracker made of dough and eaten as an accompaniment with Indian meals) knows that a roasted papad is among the most brittle, fragile things in the world. I routinely break mine even before roasting, but ignore The Resident Klutz.

So bhujelo papad nai bhongi sake refers to a person so lazy and/or inept that they are unable to break even a roasted papad.

Give it a try: Perin Kaki won’t be able to manage a house full of guests. Evan toh bhujelo papad nai bhongi sake! (By the way, true story. May Perin Kaki get lots of ready-roasted papad, wherever she is in the firmament.)

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Daar bari gayi“, someone whose dal is burnt, i.e. someone who is miffed/bitter/in a huff.

Pronounced: Daa-r buh-ree guh-ee

Wouldn’t you be pissed off if the dal (lentils for non-desis) you so lovingly stirred and simmered, all the while inhaling the aroma of garlic and turmeric and ghee, dreaming of topping it with crispy onions and garlic, fused with the bottom of your tureen and decided to char? Similarly, someone whose “daar bari gayi” is in a foul mood for a multitude of reasons not necessarily associated with the universal Indian lentil!

For example: Khursheed ni dar bari gayi because Jimmy didn’t get her jewelry on their anniversary.

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Karakri biscuit“, a person as brittle/fragile as a biscuit.

Pronounced: Kuh-raak-ree biscuit

Usually used to refer to someone whose health is fragile/prone to illness, likely to crumble easily like a cookie/biscuit (the English/Indian sort–not the flaky, madly yummy American kind!)

This is how we say it: Arre no no! Don’t offer her street food, she’s a karakri biscuit as it is!

Or: These NRIs are such karakri biscuits-the smog bothers them, the food affects them, and they routinely pass out in the heat!

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Chhamna jeva pug“, feet like a pomfret.

Pronounced: Chhum-naa jay-vaa pug (like hug)

Before you start visualizing feet growing gills and reeking of fishy smells, let me assure you that “chhumna jeva pug” merely means flat, wide feet– shaped like a pomfret, the Parsi National Fish. Growing up, I had a friend whose mother would constantly point out her “chhumna jeva pug”, to which she’d retort that chhumna (pomfrets) didn’t have any pug (feet)!

Get your Parsipanu on: Where do I find shoes in my brother’s size??? He has such chhumna jeva pug!

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Ghotala-ma-goas“, bungle in meat.

This good old favorite has already been shared on the blog! Go read about it!

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Kaando khai toh gaando thai“, the one who eats onions goes mad/crazy.

Pronounced: Kaan-doh khaa-y toh (like toe) gaan-doh thaa-y

I grew up hearing Adi Kaka chant this line with great relish (no pun intended) each time someone at the dinner table asked for the kachubar (Parsi onion salad). I don’t think it is any particular warning against onions  as much as it is a fun bunch of words that rhyme. And given that the lot of us are dotty anyway, this beautiful bulb couldn’t possibly be more crazy-inducing.

Still, chant it with me: Could you pass the kachubar, please?

Sure, but remember, kaando khai toh gaando thai!

~

Did you get your bellyful of Parsipanu? 🙂 Which phrase is your favorite? Does your native language have interesting food metaphors? I’m listening!

Of Ghosts & Reliability

19 Mar

As a child, I could set the numerous antique clocks in our home by Nana’s schedule. At 7.30, she left for work. At precisely 1, she was back. Lunch was at 1.15, and tea was on the table at 3. By 3.30, she had begun to eye the aforementioned clocks as Chandra, washer of utensils and bathrooms in our home, had failed to stick to her arrival time yet again. On some occasions, she waddled in a mere half hour late. On others, there was no sighting at all. But we knew to wait a good hour before we gave up and reassigned her chores to other house help. This behavior never failed to elicit a caustic remark from my not-so-gentle grandmother:

“Chandra noh toh bhoot no bharoso!”, Chandra has all the reliability of a ghost.

Pronounced: Bhoo-t (as in toot), no (as in foe), bhur- (as in fur), -oh- (as in go), -so (as in toe)

Since few can claim to discern the inner workings of a spook’s mind, I suppose they must appear rather come-as-you-please to us mortals. Quite inconvenient, yes, but an entire genre of films would collapse if the spirit world gave advance notice of their appearances, not to mention we would never have the pleasure of this song:

Anyhoo, swooping back to ghostly (un)reliability, let’s practice our newly-acquired Parsipanu:

Dolly noh toh bhoot no bharoso. She confirms 6 o’clock and sashays in at a quarter past eight! 😡

You try:

OJ truly has bhoot no bharoso. Sometimes she’ll post every week, and at others, it’s twice a month. 😕

One last time:

Hey, is Behzad coming for the marathon?

Who knows if he’ll wake up? Enoh toh bhoot no bharoso!

~

Who in your life has bhoot no bharoso?  And now that you are armed with this wonderfully evocative phrase, whom will you use it on?  Tell, tell! Bhoot stories welcome too! 😉

Stuff, Nonsense, and a Giveaway

15 Jan

One of my enduring childhood memories–and, in retrospect, a favorite one–is of my mum haggling with our regular fish vendor. (A piece about that interaction and my relationship with all things piscine will be part of an anthology in the mid-future, but never mind that right now.) We knew that after all the dramatic declarations of unfed mouths and daylight thugee had faded away, our prize would be fresh, delicious fish–fried, curried, or put in a good old patio.

Among the previously mentioned declarations was this unique phrase my mother would exclaim: Dhoor ne dhumasso!

“Dhoor ne dhumasso”, stuff and nonsense

Pronounced: dhoo-r neh dhum-aaso

Direct translation: dust and sawdust (?) I’m not certain what dhummaso means–will update if I find out!

Time to practice:

You’re telling me the prices have gone up since last week?? Dhoor ne dhumasso!

More:

Dhoor ne dhumasso they’re moneyed! Their type shows Colaba, buys Dadar.

Still more:

The maid came back today, claiming she’d had malaria for the 4th time in 3 months. Dhoor ne dhumasso, she’d be dead at that rate!

For an authentic exclamation, add a snort and a miffed shake of the head. Foot-stomping optional. My very efficient mother did all three seamlessly.

*****

Because it’s a spanking new year, because I have recently returned from a trip to the mother ship, and because I’m delighted with the stash I’ve carried for you, here’s 2014’s first giveaway on WWNP!!

Presenting:

parsi bol

I am thrilled that I don’t have to be your sole source of Parsipanu anymore! From the scriptwriter/director of the award-winning Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, and Little Zizou, and the author of Laughter in the House: 20th Century Parsi theatre comes this delightful collection of Parsi-isms that had me guffawing late into the night.

Between its covers are gems like “Budhvar na vandha” (so dim, can’t recite days beyond Wednesday), “Tamboo ma saheb” (pregnant), and “Kamakli”, (of lesser intelligence), which you may recall from this post.

And you, lucky people, get to raise your hand for one of three author-signed copies I’m giving away! All you need to do is tell me your favorite Parsi thing. It could be a dish, a person, a book or movie, a phrase, or a quirk you can’t quite wrap your head around.

Exhibit A:

You: Do Parsis really sip an albino bull’s urine at their Navjote?

Me: Yes! And because once isn’t enough, at their wedding too–so anything that comes after seems infinitely better! Here’s your free copy of Parsi Bol!

~

Exhibit B:

You: Do Parsi dead people really get fed to vultures?

Me: For breakfast, lunch and dinner! In fact, I’d last them a whole week. Here’s your free copy of Parsi Bol!

~

Exhibit C:

You: My favorite Parsi is Freddie Mercury.

Me: Oops, wrong answer! It should’ve been me. Next!

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So go on, jump in and wrangle! Winners will be randomly chosen. Giveaway open until January 31st and to U.S. residents only. Everyone’s welcome to chime in, though! Please leave a valid email address in the required field (and not in the comment box) so you can be contacted.

Happy New Year, my friends! So glad to infuse some chuckles into 2014. :mrgreen:

*****

 

Updated to add:

 

*Trumpet blast*

 

*Lion roaring ala MGM*

The 3 lucky winners of the Parsi Bol giveaway are……. *drumroll*

*nail-biting anticipation*

*torturous silence*

*clears throat*

 

# 1: Subu

 

#2: A. Rashid

 

#3: allMom

 

Congratulations! I hope you have a truly enjoyable time reading the book. 🙂 Please email orangejammies@gmail.com with your last name and mailing address and I’ll pop your prize in the mail right away!

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This giveaway has now concluded. Thanks every one of you for participating and chiming in with your lovely responses! 🙂 You guys are the best.

 

Mango Madness

15 Nov

Egad! It’s nearing the end of the year and I just noticed that our “Parsipanu” category isn’t exactly chubby, unlike a certain well-fed community member in the mirror. Time to remedy that attar-ghari (right this minute).

Hark back to 1980s Bombay. Your family just made plans to go to the Victoria Gardens, (also known as Jijamata Udyan or the zoo). In their excitement, they invited two neighboring families, and before you know it, there’s a phone marathon about how many akoori sandwiches, chicken patties, and mawa cakes will sustain the hungry horde. The day dawns just like any other, except nobody ever says that in writing. Bright and early, we like to chirp. So bright and early, three families and their hampers pile into their shiny, Parsi-owned Fiats and trundle off in anticipation of a fun picnic.

At the once immaculately-maintained gates of the zoo, a large board announces that today being a bank holiday, the gardens will be closed to the public.

Chaalo, dhom dhuss ne keri chuss!” declares Uncle Kersi, in a suspiciously satisfied tone.

So we don’t have a picnic, but we do get a brand new Parsi-ism to play with:

“Dhom dhuss ne keri chuss”, it all came to nought.

Pronounced: Dhawm dhoo-s neh ke-ree choos

Direct translation: It all came tumbling down, now suck a mango.

Let’s give it a try:

“What was the point of training so rigorously for Sports Day if you were going to sprain your ankle the night before? Chaalo (come on), dhom dhuss ne keri chuss!”

And one more time:

“Kaiomarz thought his girlfriend was commitment-phobic, so he never discussed marriage. She eventually dumped him. Big fat dhom dhuss ne keri chuss!”

What situations have been a DDNKC for you? Time to share! Everyone wants to know. 🙂

No Meat Feat

9 Sep

Hands up those who’re related to well-meaning but bumbling folks who amuse us with their follies. Yup, totally expected that forest of waving arms. I’m no exception, and my community even has a special phrase to celebrate mix-ups, boo-boos, or whatever you want to call ’em.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting:

Ghotala-ma-goas“, n. a big bungle

Pronounced: gho-taa-laa maa go-s

Direct translation: Meat in the mess-up

 

If you know anything about the Parsis, you will be aware that we’re a bunch of obligate carnivores. Mutton is our Mecca, our Holy Grail is the holy grill and many, many childhoods revolved around the thrill that was the arrival of the Chick Van.

Just like we break an egg on near everything, meat–good old goas–is dunked and simmered in dals, vegetables, rice, and ice cream. Okay fine, maybe not ice cream. So we have paapri-ma-goas, masoor-ma-goas, papeta-ma-goas, tamota-ma-goas, cauliflower-ma-goas, bheeda-ma-goas, and sakarkand-ma-goas, in addition to meat-specific dishes like kid goas (served at our wedding dinner), salli boti, chops, and cutlets.

Now that you have this introduction, you won’t be so surprised to learn that a bungle, in Parsi Gujarati, is called ghotala-ma-goas. Why leave the poor errors out in the cold while we feast on tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone meat?

Let’s practice with an example:

They landed up at Eros instead of Sterling for the movie! Tsk, tsk. Such ghotala-ma-goas.

You try it:

These people OJ knows fed the same dog twice and starved the other one for 2 days straight. Now that’s a ghotala-ma-goas if there ever was one.

Your turn now: What legendary ghotala-ma-goases have you been a part of? C’mon people, get sharing! Let that be your Parsipanu pound of flesh. 😉

Suffer the Fuffer, Darn the Kaan

26 Jun

This morning, as the Boy threw clothes into our laundry hamper, it keeled over and descended on him from atop the dryer. Exclamations of annoyance emerged from the laundry closet, somewhat muffled by soft cotton undershirts and delicate unmentionables, which, 1) reached my kasaari-na-kaan in the kitchen, and 2) had me asking him “Why are you doing fuffer-chattuk?”

So gather around, my lovelies, for today we decode 2 more Parsi-isms:

1) Kasaari-na-kaan

Pronounced: kuh (like duh)-saa (like maa)-ree (like see)   naa (like paa)    kaan (like paan)

Translation: Insect’s ears

Meaning: Ears as sharp as an insect (some argue that it isn’t just any insect, specifically, it is a cockroach, but let’s just keep things all-around pleasant, shall we?)

Now sharp eyesight may not be my thing, and my Parsi nose is mostly for show, but ears, ears I have, and they do a stellar job to make up for my other not-so-efficient senses. A sniffle in the next room? I’m on it. A click in the house next door? I heard it. Volume, frequency, tonal quality, no problem! My kasaari-na-kaan hear it all. So each time I pick up on something the Boy doesn’t, he looks at me in awe and says, “Whoa, kasaari-na-kaan!” and now you can use this quirky Parsi phrase too. Just try not to throw it at your stone-deaf granduncle Cawas.

Example: Tehmi Fui has such kasaari-na-kaan! She could hear the girls giggling at the other end of the house.

2) Fuffer-chattuk

Pronounced: fuff (like stuff)-uhr (like sir)      chut (like hut)-uk (like luck)

Translation: Grumbling and fretting

Meaning: When someone throws a mildly grumbling hissy fit of a non-violent nature, they are doing fuffer-chattuk. Mostly harmless, fuffer-chattuk implies grumbling under one’s breath while banging pots and pans in the kitchen. Or stomping around, complaining about all the extra work one has to do once the guests leave.

Example: I asked the cook to make 3 side dishes for the party and her fuffer-chattuk went on all day.

Extra: “Bubber-fuffer” is also a phrase in the same vein, and means pretty much the same thing.

 

So tell me, what do you do fuffer-chattuk about? And who in your family has kasaari-na-kaan? And who are you going to try these Parsi-isms on? 🙂