Trip: Port Blair and Havelock. February 2012.
I’m not a cook
I know nothing of masalas
But my tongue knows
When they’re mixed well
For it just blurts out the truth
For all to hear.
And if you’re far away
Unable to hear
The tongue, it just
Nags me until I write
All that it wants, in a new blog post!
So here I am writing about the best introduction I ever had to the grilled world of salt water fish. Swapan is the name of the chef. He is the owner of that small eatery in the main market on Havelock Island which is a part of the Andamans.
‘Not just grill fish, but grill fish in banana leaf!’ explained Swapan to me when we walked inside his eatery that he proudly calls ‘Swapan Restaurant’. There are long tables and benches under a palm leaf covered roof. No windows. No doors. A lot of hand-drawn big and small posters extolling his culinary talents stuck and pinned wherever there is space. I could see a couple of such posters even creeping on the roof.
‘We had grilled fish at El Dorado last night but we’ve come here to your place for lunch because a friend in Delhi told me you’re the best around here.’
‘Yes,’ he replied without a moment’s hesitation, and then continued, ‘fariners love my banana leaf grill.’
Watch this small video I made at this place before you read any further, and you’ll agree with every word that is written in this post:
‘So I can see,’ I said, ‘the posters are made by your fans and these people seem to be from all over the world. You have websites, videos, blogs dedicated to you. But what is so special about the fish you grill?’
‘Not just the fish,’ he quickly pointed out, ‘but even prawns, crabs, and lobsters. All sorts of sea fish. Red Snappers, White Snappers, Barracuda… all done so well in a special masala…’
‘Special masala?’ I asked, and before I could go any further, he waved his right hand calling me near him, and said in a lowered voice that the masala is his very own secret!
‘So, what will you have?’ he asked, and then answered, ‘Right now I have a lovely barracuda. I’ll prepare that for the two of you. Free rice and vegetables. And it will cost you just two hundred.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘We’ll have whatever you offer.’
He immediately started with showing me the great fish he had for us, made the right cuts deftly, and began his painstaking masala process. This was when I asked him, ‘I’ve read somewhere that if this isn’t marinated in teriyaki sauce or milk, the fishiness stays.’
He looked up, smiled, and replied, ‘Swapan is grilling the fish for you. You don’t have to worry about anything. You will come here again for dinner…,’ he paused for a moment and then continued, ‘and all the meals until you’re here on Havelock. Maybe for the lobsters or the Tiger Prawns.’
My wife looked at me and then looked at Swapan and said, ‘We’ll be leaving in a couple of hours…’
‘Then the taste of this fish will linger within you for years to come,’ Swapan announced grandly.
His kitchen was barely five feet away from where we sat and I could see him working furiously with two other fishes as there were a Portuguese couple too who had quietly entered and sat on the bench next to ours. He kept coming to the sitting area to point out to various posters and tell a little about the stories connected to them. It was around the time he had folded the fish in banana leaf and then aluminium foil that he turned and told us, ‘I follow three rules. I serve only the freshest catch and I go and choose the fish myself. I know when the boats come in and I have a lot of fishermen friends. The second rule is that I prepare the fish myself. Only me. No one else.’
There was a pause here. He probably waited for someone to say something. Satisfied that he had our attention, he continued, ‘And I don’t over-charge. Nowhere on Havelock can you find this taste at this price. There is nothing else in my restaurant… no drinks, nothing else to eat. Yet those who come here, come again.’
‘Well, I’d agree with you on the price,’ I told him. ‘We’ve paid more than double for the grilled fish we had at El Dorado.’
‘Yes, I know that.’
He told us that his eatery in Village No. 3 here was his passion ever since he came from Bengal to the Andamans. He also told us that he made and sold samosas during the non-tourist season. By this time, the fish was ready to be served. The aroma was strikingly heavenly… and the large grilled fish packed in its covering was on our table…
As we busied ourselves with the fish, Swapan took our permission to leave the eatery and go to check if some fresh catch was available…
Here was one man who was single-handedly competing with all the top resorts, the larger restaurants, the eating places that served fancy food in fancy ways and had the confidence to say that he was the best. The barracuda was indeed the best grilled fish I had ever had in my entire life… and I was glad to hear even my wife agree to that.
‘This wasn’t just some fish,’ my wife told Swapan, ‘this was food worth being served to the Gods.’
Swapan was so happy to hear this that he wanted to be photographed with the new lot of fishes that he had just carried in… see the joy in his eyes you.
We had found not just someone who grilled fish superbly and a conversationalist who made sure that his customers did not mind waiting for what he was cooking, but also a friendly soul.
It is impossible not to admit that we felt bad leaving for Port Blair that evening not just because Havelock is a charming Island, but also because we would never get to taste all the other fantastic sea food that we could’ve tasted at Swapan’s restaurant.
29 February 2012