“Why do they get to have so many when we have so few?”
“Because they don’t eat the paplet (pomfret), raja.”
“It’s not our fault they don’t eat fish. Why are we being punished? We like the kolumbi (prawns) too”
“Next time, I will ask for many, many more to be bought from the market. Then you can have all that and the fish. Chala putano, jeva aata. (Come my dears, eat your food now.)”
Pick any weekend when there was a fish dinner at grandma’s and you could count on this conversation replaying like a broken record. My cousin Pags and I always knew that we had a sweet deal. His sister and mine knew that that nothing would change, the same thing would happen the next time. Yet one of them always complained of the unfairness of it all. It was almost ritualistic, their complaints, my grandma’s cajoling, Parag and I eating up quick before anyone had a chance to change their mind, the post-dinner grumbling.
I still cannot eat fried prawns without thinking of that time.
Aaji, as we call my grandma, was always a fabulous cook, but these fried prawns of hers, they are legend. Any one who has eaten them even once goes into raptures when they think of them. My uncle, whose kitchens turned out some fabulous menus, catered all of my cousins’ parties. Delicious, unforgettable food. However no matter what the menu, her friends always asked for these prawns to be there too. The recipe; it is simple. What my grandma turned out of her kitchen though, was magic.
My grandma has lived a life filled with many everyday adventures. When your life involves growing up under foreign rule, knowing Portuguese and English when women were lucky to have an education, surviving a large joint family, enjoying children, their children, even great-grandchildren; the adventure portion of it is not even the most interesting part of a rich, full life. She was quite plucky for her time with scars like a permanently crooked right forefinger to prove it. She’d been playing cricket with the boys and had a cricket ball smash into it.
Aaji has always been a strong woman, phenomenally open-minded for an Indian woman of her generation. She has dealt with loud parties, loud music and the ever changing world well into her advanced years much better than most people her age. She has had very decided ideas about everything and believed in arguing for what she believed in. My uncle is food industry professional, yet she firmly believed she was the one who should cook for him. He was never allowed in her kitchen to do more than get a glass of water.
Even in her octogenarian years, when her body has weakened, the spirit has been very strong. I never saw her break down, except that one time, when my grandpa passed away. She’s always had a deep interest in people and a strong appeal to help everybody. She’s been the person everyone talks to about their problems because she truly listened and encouraged people to be strong. She’d sit you down, ply you with prodigious quantities of food and by the time you were done eating and talking, you’d feel a lot better. Especially so if that meal included fried prawns.
The recipe is quick and simple. It involves a short marination of cleaned prawns with a couple of spices, ginger, garlic and tamarind pastes, followed by a good dunking in semolina before getting shallow fried. You may think it’s enough of a doddle to not be spectacular. You’d be wrong, because it is. It.oh.so.absitivelyy.posolutely.is!
What this marination process and subsequent frying does to the prawns is nothing short of culinary alchemy. They turn into these mouth-watering, crunchy, juicy morsels that you cannot stop eating. They are as impossible to resist as jellybeans. In fact, I’m willing to bet a good recipe that you couldn’t stop at just one.
I’ve been thinking of my childhood and of these prawns a lot. All my memories of my grandma are intermingled with them. Aaji moved on to better place a fortnight ago; away from us, up among the angels. Unlike when my grandpa passed, all her grandchildren were abroad when this happened. The end came suddenly and we had little time to react. Those memories and her love, often expressed through an extra helping of these prawns, they are all I have of her now. I miss her terribly and can never tell her that. But even so, I’d like to think she’s thoroughly enjoying her new adventures, up there among the stars.
Pan-fried Prawns with tamarind and semolina
These are always the first things to go anytime they are made. This is the recipe my grandma always handed out when asked. It’s how my mom makes them, my aunt makes them. Try as we might, none of ours turn out quite like my grandma’s version. I like to think it was her magic touch.
Small to medium size prawns – 18-20, peeled and deveined
Tamarind paste – ½ tsp
Ginger paste – 1tsp
Garlic paste – 1 tsp
Turmeric powder – ½ tsp
Chilli powder – 1 tsp
Dhana-jeera powder – ½ tsp
Salt – ½ tsp
Semolina – about a cup, to coat
Neutral oil like canola for frying
– Place the prawns in a bowl and add tamarind paste, ginger and garlic pastes, turmeric, chilli powder, dhana-jeera powder and salt. Toss until the prawns are completely coated in the marinating mixture. Place in the fridge for at least a half hour to marinate.
– Place a large flat non-stick pan on the stove and add a turn of oil, just enough to coat the entire pan. Heat on medium.
– Pour the semolina into a shallow bowl. Toss in no more than four to five prawns at a time. Coat each prawn completely with the semolina and place in the hot oil.
– Fry for about five minutes or until the semolina turns crusty and golden brown, then gently turn it over with forks to fry the other side until it’s the same.
– Remove to drain on some kitchen towels.
Serve with practically anything or just by itself as an excellent appetizer. One of my favourite things in the world is to have them with rice andsol kadi
(I’ve been away from this space for while. Life happens, as it is wont to do. Thanks for missing me, as so many of you have expressed through email, Twitter and FB. You humble this girl from Bombay by your enthusiastic response to my meager thoughts on food and life. This blog and I are lucky to have such amazing fans.)