Bengalis, you'd hear people say, are born to eat fish. This is perhaps truer than the other aphorism that all Bengalis are communists. My wife is like a fish out of water when it comes to eating a bone-filled (boneful, if you may, as opposed to boneless) fish. And I know at least 40 other Bengalis who either hate fish or are too scared to try them after a traumatic bone-in-the-throat experience.
But Bengalis - and many other east and North-east Indian communities - take to fish as a duck takes to water, and they make no bones about claiming that a fish diet is vegetarian. I love fish in all its varied forms - raw (sushi), boiled, fried, bland, spicy, grilled, roasted, burnt, mashed, fermented and dried - as long as someone cooks it for me. With this, it's proved that I don't intend to bore you with one of those culinary fundas. Instead, I want to share with you something I have mastered - the art of deboning a fish while eating. It's not an art, but the three-letter word makes the mundane sound exotic. And it makes me feel like a big fish.
My wife has two ways to tackle bone-filled fish. She either deep-fries them to make them ultra crisp or makes a series of deep incisions to take the threat out of the bones inside. But eating a toasted or decapitated fish is so unchallenging; it's as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And I have never been a fish out of water.
I can eat a palm-sized or smaller fish without deboning it. The entire skeleton, crushed by the molars, follows the flesh to the stomach. But there are times when you don't feel like ingesting the calcium. At such times, you need to know how to separate bones from the flesh.
My talent found expression at a farewell party for a commander of the army's Tezpur-based 4th Corps. On the menu was bhapa ilish, a sesame-loaded steamed delicacy, instead of the standard rohu or katla drowned in a syrupy saalan borrowed from the same stock that yields mutton, chicken or matar-paneer.
"How do you manage such a dangerous fish?" the commander asked, as if I were a queer fish. I grabbed the opportunity to lecture a lieutenant-general on something I was presumably better at.
"There are several ways of tackling a stubborn, prickly fish," I said. "The two-hand technique, for instance, is for novices. This entails holding a chunk of fish in one hand and using the forefinger and thumb of the other hand to pull out the bones. If you gain confidence, try the hand-teeth technique in which your incisors take over the job of extricating bones from the thumb-forefinger duo."
The lieutenant-general gulped as I continued, "The toughest but fastest is the tongue technique. You simply put a chunk of fish, like this hilsa, in your mouth and use the tongue to separate the bones from the flesh." The army officer probably sensed I was fishing for compliments. "Interesting, but you can keep your techniques to yourself. I have other fish to fry," he said. "Besides, I am a vegetarian."
Fish and non-vegetarian? Go tell that to a Bengali, an Assamese or a Manipuri.