“Don’t dig too deep into the freezer.” I warned the family after my recent trip to a Bangladeshi grocery store.
“Why? What did you put in there?”
“Fish head. A big head of carp (ruhi).” I gleefully replied.
“Ugh! Ewwwww!” I expected this response from my half Bengali daughter. My white husband skillfully hid his “I am also disgusted” emotion from his face.
You can take the girl out of Bengal, but you really can not take the fish head loving Bengali out of the girl. Fish head was/is my favorite. Even when I was a horribly picky eater, I loved fish head. Macher matha diye dal (fish head in mung dal), muri ghonto (no idea what this is in English), macher matha r chocchori (again, no idea what this is in English). I, however, only got to eat fish head when I went back home. I did not know those were available here as well. So when I found them neatly wrapped and frozen, I did not hesitate. Once I came home and safely ensconced it in my freezer did it hit me that I have never cooked fish head in my life. I only ate them once they were lovingly prepared by whoever was cooking. Till this day, a traditional birthday lunch of a Bengali must include a fish head and payesh (rice pudding). If one has the means, the bowl of payesh would be a silver one as well as the spoon.
Sean has had a funny relationship with fish heads too. He claims those are the reason he went vegetarian. When he got transferred to Kolkata, he had to travel to remote villages of Bengal for work. Wherever he went he was treated royally by locals and was generally the guest of honor. When they served him lunch or dinner, the best portion was given to him – along with rice and vegetables, a huge head of fish generally adorned his plate, looking up at him with dead eyes. This American man was repulsed by the sight of it, forget trying to eat it. But the villagers looked on with such pride that he did not want to hurt their feelings either. He turned vegetarian so he could refuse the fish head. He perfected the art of a huge smile, folded hands, bent head and the words, “Oh I am a vegetarian. These all look so delicious. I will eat the rice, dal and vegetables.” The fish head, at that point, was removed while the women and men tsk tsked at Sean’s choice. What joy is there in life if you don’t eat fish, mutton, chicken? We Bengalis (many of us, not all) live to eat.
Anyway, the fish head rests in my freezer. I think of it often, with equal measure of anticipation and apprehension. I want to eat it and I also am a little unsure how to cook it well. Yes, there are YouTube videos but will my cooked fishhead bring back memories of home?