he eyes never lie, trust the eyes,” he told me. I didn’t know Raju from Adam, but he had noticed my apprehension, walking like a tourist along Mumbai’s Versova jetty one afternoon hoping to become the kind of person who can effortlessly pick out the best fish.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to buy fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Armed with this philosophy, I had been shadowing men who looked like wholesalers, the ones who could pick the big grouper and the mesmerising giant stingray, and decide with one look that something was off with the fish. In a desperate bid to understand how they judged the freshness of a fish, I walked behind them, eavesdropping.
I was born into a vegetarian household, so I didn’t grow up around meat and pick up the tricks children in other households did. As I grew up, I would make a beeline for the typical produce available at supermarkets, but I couldn’t tell a fresh fish from a stale one if it hit me in the face.
So I decided to take the fishmonger route. But telling a fish vendor that you know nothing about buying fish and that you would like her to teach you, is the most efficient way to purchase rotten gills. My hapless cook, in her quest to teach me, would hold up a piece of fish and say ambiguous things – strung together in semi-Marathi sentences – like, “It should feel fresh.” I had no option but to teach myself. And the jetty was the perfect school for fish picking.
Even though the jetty sounds like a fish market, it doesn’t smell like one. A friend and I strolled through the gallis of Versova, passing fruit, sprout, and meat sellers. It was clean and there were plenty of cats, dogs, and scavenger birds polishing off the offal. They say that fresh fish smells of sea breeze. It was true for the jetty since all the catch unloaded there is sold the same day.
The gallis open into an expanse of cacophony, of blue buckets filled with abundant fruta del mar. We couldn’t decide what we wanted, and with every step our problem multiplied: The jetty had everything, from eel to stingray, squid, octopus, crab, prawn. And of course, fish of all shapes and sizes.
I asked one of the vendors to help me with the freshness test on a pomfret, and she told me that a white liquid ought to ooze out of the gills when pressed. I proceeded to do exactly that, but she wacked my hand. The jetty had a multitude of poor women migrants from Coonoor, who sat in groups armed with curved knives and stone slabs, cleaning and deveining seafood. On my first couple of outings, I was followed by Rekha, who insisted on being my go-to cleaner, but unfortunately she was no help in picking fish.
That day, with Raju, my simplistic notion of “good fish is fresh fish” went out of the window.
And then I met Raju. He was one of the first wholesalers I tried to shadow after all other routes had failed. I had approached a bunch of them to help me buy rawas, but most seemed disinterested. Raju smiled at me and decided to put me out of my misery. “The gills should be red, and the eyes should shine; they should stand out,” he advised me. He mentioned that sometimes, the fisherfolk tie the gills so that the fish appears fresher, but the body does not remain correspondingly firm. I had finally found the teacher I had been looking for: A UPwallah working for a seafood exporter in Mumbai.
Raju agreed to take me around. As we walked around the jetty, I learnt that given its limited catch, the rawas had become costly and most restaurants palmed off the hekru (spiny-cheek grouper) or the kot to their customers.
“It looks very different from the rawas,” I said to him, looking at the hekru. “A layman can’t tell the difference once prepared,” he explained. Was it possible that I had never eaten rawas, the fish I loved so much?
That day, with Raju, my simplistic notion of “good fish is fresh fish” went out of the window. I’d assumed that nothing could be fresher than fish caught the same day. What I didn’t know was, that while fishing boats dock at the jetty through the day (some come and go daily), the better quality or deep-sea fish arrive on boats that do a 10- to 15-day round. They go beyond the bay and sewage-infested waters of the coastline. Quality seafood is, therefore, at least four days to a week old.
Good quality fish resided somewhere in the cross section of where it was caught and how it was stored until it reached the jetty. This was information impossible to retrieve from the impatient vendors.
Armed with all this new material and confidence, I allowed myself to be captivated by a strange, new fish. Slender, grey, flat-bodied with a perfect “O” for a mouth – locals rarely bought it and some of the vendors themselves had never eaten it. They called it Chinese pomfret, but it was colloquially called the “chappal”. An on-the-spot Google search with a profusion of images on the internet, unlocked its unusual name: reef leatherjacket. I bought three of these white-fleshed, alien creatures, revealing its real name to whoever cared to listen, though the jetty folk continued to call it Chinese pomfret.
I thanked Raju profusely and trudged back home with my haul of hekrus that I would later make into a splendid coconut curry and “chappal” which would become the perfect replacement for frozen basa.
My adventures along the jetty had taught me a bunch of things, but chief among them was that curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Instead, it gets her golden anchovies one day, and pink perch the next. No need to squeeze their gills or stroke them to see how slimy or firm they are. All she has to do is, stare into fish eyes.