With one eye on the bag of slowly defrosting keski, the distant ringing thrums down the handset, like some sort of Vodaphonic heartbeat. I tilt my head unnaturally to crick it twixt ear and chin.
“Hello?” her voice is small and husky with exhaustion. I hear the days of graft in that hello. The years of ruined eyesight bartered for long nights of dress-making just to raise and educate her brood. I never call as much as I should.
“Maa, it’s me.” I look at the rapidly melting block of tiny, thread-like bodies with their scattered, sequin eyes. They stare back at me, frozen in a piscine twister of animation.
“kemon aso!!” I hold the phone away from my ear as she asks me how I am, her voice shrill with excitement. I can almost hear her green eyes lighting up. I ask her how her health is. The diabetes has worsened lately and it seriously breaks my heart that she’s still slogging her guts out for a cruel joke of a wage. I wonder if she pictured such a charmed life when she stepped off the plane back in sixty two.
“I’m making keski, but mine never seem to turn out like yours.” I say this in Bengali which always pleases her no end. I am a terrible daughter.
She patiently talks me through it, struggling to vocalise instinctive measurements that are barely registered when making it herself. We don’t always see eye to eye, but food is something we’ve always bonded over. She’s clearly delighted that I am finally behaving like a proper Bengali woman. I promise to come round soon, and hang up. Turning to the sink it suddenly occurs to me that this is yet another dish she’s no longer allowed to eat.
I slit the bag open and liberate the minnow-like corpses. Each one is no more than a few centimetres long, and wouldn’t look out of place in the pond of a doll’s house. They slip deliciously through my fingers. I find their shrunken, bonsai bodies fascinating; the spines visible in their perfect and translucent frames. They make whitebait look gigantic.
When people refer to Bengali fish, it’s the sweet river fish, the Hilsa and the Ruhi or carp that are regarded as the “roast beef” of the nation. However, while these go to the wealthy, the remaining 80% of the population that subsist below the poverty line turn to keski and other titchy clupeids for their animal protein. I’ve always loved it simply mixed with grated onion, and dusted in spiced flour before deep frying in bite-sized tempura-like batches. It can usually be found in those massive freezers at the back of most Asian food shops, further away from their mightier cousins; and cost about £1 a frozen block. If you are going to eat imported fish you could do a lot worse. Plus they’re insanely tasty.
I locate a bag of wilting spinach, some tomatoes, a few radishes, half a cucumber and a bunch of coriander lurking in the bottom of the salad drawer. I chop everything up and sprinkle over a teaspoon of masala mix (cumin, coriander, turmeric and cardamom powders) and crush in a small clove of garlic. I season well and stir in lots of cool, creamy yoghurt and crème fraiche.
I rinse the fish a few times and then grate an eye-blistering quarter of an onion and mix this well with the silvery shreds. I stir 3 tbsps of rice flour, 1 tbsp of cornflour, ¼ tsp of chilli powder and 1 tsp each of salt, curry powder and cumin seeds together in a shallow dish. I heat about four fingers of oil in a wok.
And that’s when it all goes wrong.
Forgetting her advice about just dredging the fish in the flour, and her warnings of light dustings only, I tip the fish in the middle of the plate. They enthusiastically soak up the seasoned flour like a roll of Bounty. I panic and pour more rice flour on, but am rewarded with a big sticky plate of disappointment.
I painstakingly tease out tiny forkfuls from the clump, remembering what she’d told me about only frying about nine or ten at a time, at most.
It’s a slow and messy process and I silently curse myself for not listening to her. I gingerly drop small spoonfuls into the shimmering wok. The fat bubbles into action, and the nuggets turns a pleasing caramel hue in a minute or so.
The fiancé pads over, intrigued by the spicy fragrance. He surveys the fryer-fresh golden morsels, the grease still crackling on them with vague disinterest. He takes a bite. “ohmgm goth they’re frrkin maythin” he splutters through the surprised mouthful. I sample a much cooler piece. It’s still crisp; the thread-like clusters of fish crunch pleasingly between the porcelain, before yielding to a softer, almost creamy interior. They are delicious.
However, something’s not quite right. The taste is bang on, the fish and allium flavours are almost sycophantically in tune, but it’s the presentation that’s slightly off kilter. The hair-like strands are meant to be visibly separate, but here they are mushed into almost pakora-like chunks. I watch him joyfully plough his way through the bowl, pairing crispy mouthfuls with the creamy, garlicky raita. Of course, he has no idea that it looks all wrong; he’s never had this before. I smile, I suppose it’s a far cry from fish fingers.
The following evening I cancel the restaurant reservation I’ve made and decide to pay a surprise visit to the parental home instead. It’s true what they say – there are some things that money can’t buy.