Something’s Fish-y!

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Fish Market

Explore the fascinating world of Bengali culture and identity through the lens of the daily ritual of buying fish, or “Maachh kena.” Dive into the intricate details of how this seemingly routine act is not just about acquiring food but a profound expression of emotion and identity. Join the Bengalis as they navigate the complexities of choosing the perfect fish, engage in spirited haggling at the Maachher baajar, and revel in the art of turning a mere transaction into a triumph of culinary satisfaction.

“Bajaare aaj daroon machh uthechhe” declared my Babuji ecstatically! The look on his face said it all. ‘Maachh kena’ or buying fish is a pretty routine act, a roj-kaar byapaar, for Bangaalis, and yet it isn’t. It is an emotion that only a true blue Bangaali can perceive! Maachh or fish is to Bengalis what Dosa is to Tamilians, Dhokla to Gujaratis and Khaar to Axomiyas….not just staple food but an identity card in itself!
All my life l have practically seen my Ma judging my father by this yardstick… he would rise and fall in her esteem, everyday,  depending on the quality of the maachh he bought!
If he’d got Ilish or Hilsa, that spread its distinctive overpowering aroma all around the house right from the moment of its entry, he would have passed her ‘Agnipariksha’ and in appreciation for his feat, he could have very well asked her for the moon…and got it, in all probability!
When it comes to fish, we Bangaalis are completely obsessed with that  one question… Is the machh  ‘jyanto/jiyol’ or not, meaning is it showing signs of life or not, even as it is being scrutinized for a possible buy, because truth be told, what could be fresher and hence sweeter than fish that is still swimming around in the crates and boxes in the fish markets?! And should the fish that comes home from the maachh baajaar show any sign of life(ranging from ‘ektu nora chora korchhe’ to ‘ekebaare laphachhe!’) as it is  laid out to be washed, then the entire household looks at the baajaar sarkaar(the fish buyer here) with newfound respect!
I have even heard fables of Bengali  marriages being  solemnised only on the grounds of superlative  performances in maachh-buying, sealing the deal so to say!
To the true fish connoisseurs, ‘chaalaani maachh’  or fish that is brought from outside states, preserved in dry ice, is the black sheep, much looked down upon, giving all loyal fish eaters a bad name! They roll their eyes and mutter unspeakable things under their breath at the very mention of the same!
In Bengali predominant areas, it is common to spot snobbish, elite bhodroloks clad in ‘dhoper’ Pyjama-Panjabi and Mashimaas in their Taants and Baluchoris, set out on Sunday morning, making a beeline for……where else?! The Maachher baajar, of course! With  a baajaarer bag in hand (the jute bags of yore or their more contemporary, plastic versions) the bhodroloks peer from behind their bifocals at the spread of fish in the market while the Mashimaas deftly negotiate the treacherous, filth filled tracks between the fish stalls, gathering up their shaari pleats in one hand, critically appraising the fresh catch….the fish mongers( maachh- aalaas)holding their collective breaths, looking heavenward ever so often, praying that they pass the acid test!
But wait! Just casting a critical eye will not do…there are other serious, sequential steps involved in the selection of a daroon maachh in a Bangaali’s life! There will be a good deal of poking and probing of the fish, the quintessential ‘pet-tipey-dekha’, basically testing the tone of the fish flesh, more around the gut..the firmer, the fresher..followed by the ‘kaan dekha’ or checking the colour of the gills(though ‘kaan’ literally means ear)…the brighter and redder, the fresher…checking the eye of the fish…if it has glazed over, it is likely one that has departed for its heavenly abode quite sometime back and hence a strict no-no…the overall shine of the fish skin is noted, the shinier, the fresher, and finally(well, more or less), the maachh will be subjected to the most important check..the ‘gondho’ test…every fish will be lifted up to the nostrils and a long and discerning whiff partaken of..if it does not smell ‘pocha’ or rotten, then the buyer’s eyes light up with the jubilation of a victor and in anticipation of a sumptuous meal of maachh bhaat!
Then Dadu or Jethu or Kaku or the Mashima or Kakima or Boudi, as maybe the case, raises his or her eyes benevolently to the maachh-aalaa/fish-monger and with the most imperceptible of nods of the head, the decision is conveyed!
And here begins the ‘aashol khela’! The real game! Now, what does a true Bengali love, l mean, really love? Some hard-core ‘daam-dor kora’, or haggling, in other words! In all the fish markets of Bengal, West or East …no, actually any fish market frequented by Bengalis, one can hear a distinctive exchange between the buyer and the begins with low decibel sweet words, some banter, jokes,even coyness on the part of the buyer in the hope of getting a great catch home at an unbelievable price…and soon builds to a certain crescendo when the seller is not easily convinced or dissuaded…a close observation of the deals struck in such places will tell you that daam dor kora is nothing short of an art, a management exercise, a drill in strategizing and some good old street smartness!
After a while of all manners of haggling, a deal acceptable to all parties involved is struck..the maachh is taken to the chopping block and it is first dressed and then cut into customized fillets and portions, fondly referred to as ‘piece-kora’ by the Bengalis. Much care is taken to clean the gut, the pet(the foul smelling and obnoxious looking intestines, once cleaned, actually make for some finger-licking dishes!), to discard the gall bladder ( known as ‘pitto’ ….a shoddily cleaned maachh carries an unpleasant bitter taste! Unpardonable!), rip out the kaan(gills) and everything is then packeted and handed over to the rightful owner!
The Bangaali then proceeds to  stage a grand entry home with the ‘daaroon maachh’…if it happens to be one of the naturally aromatic species, then its aroma precedes its actual physical entry into the buyer’s home and thereafter engulfs all the nooks and corners! The ‘daaroonness‘ of the maachh is no longer in question! The grihini or the radhuni busies herself in conjuring up mouth watering dishes with the day’s buy, her eyes and soul lighting up with the fuzzy warmth of having fed her family a hearty meal, while the buyer’s chest swells up with buyer’s pride at yet another feather added in his/her cap and …ahem…at yet another maachh stomached contentedly!!
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