I am convinced that I have been utterly spoilt with the best fish cutlets on the planet. The most delicious, moreish mackerel fish cutlets in the whole world. I sometimes dream about them, eating them fresh off the frying pan, nabbing them off the kitchen paper where they were kept to drain, sometimes from over my mum’s shoulder. This has gotten easier as the years have passed, I am a lot bigger now and my reach much longer.
My granny was the first to make the best cutlets in the world, and she still makes them, and I love watching her make them.
She is quiet most times. So quiet that we sometimes forget that she is listening, a fixture on the wall, a piece of aged furniture. But she is very much there, waiting for that perfect moment where she can jump into conversation, or have someone bring her in.
She keeps up appearances, for god forbid anyone think her too old, inept, or unkempt. Her hair is dyed a suitable black, combed into uniform fluff, her dresses are archaic though well-pressed, lipstick dark, dentures pristine. She walks with entitlement, an expectation of veneration, a proud woman, queen-like, matriarchal.
There is only one place where this façade is set aside, where watching eyes and their thoughts are irrelevant, where the emphasis shifts from herself onto something else. For in the kitchen she is merely a medium, a conduit through which tradition, precision and reverence for the culinary art flows. It is bigger than she is, more important.
For her there is no room for creativity, no deviations from the recipe permitted, a recipe not written or printed but instead engraved, imbedded and inscribed upon her mind and programmed into her hands.
When she is alone, she tells me, she does not think. Thoughts are the enemy: they bring emotions in and these alter her routine, they ruin her contentment, and remind her that she is not young anymore. They remind her that she is alone.
She finds solace and peace in her daily routine. Wake up, wash, clean, cook, television, bed. Repeated, and repeated, repeated now for decades. I ask her if she still has fun; she tells me that after all these years she still enjoys eating, so she cooks for herself as if she was cooking for a guest. ‘I eat well’, she says, with a smile.
While cooking, the absence of thought takes a new form. She is completely present and her movements slow down. I know it is because of her age but I’d like to think she takes a particular sort of pleasure from the process. She knows the whole narrative, the beginning, the middle, the end, and starts and completes it the same way she always has. I reiterate, there is no creativity in her cooking, she finds joy in doing the same things in the same way for the same taste, over and over again. While Jiro dreams of sushi, my granny dreams of curry, except of course, she likes things just the way they are.
She sits with a bowl of boiled mackerel, brought fresh from the fish market and boiled at home. The smell is not too pleasant, boiled mackerel smells like stale garbage, but my mind is now trained to know, in Pavlovian fashion, that pure deliciousness is on the horizon. Its flesh is stripped slowly and effortlessly off the bone, every flake, every morsel, nothing left to be extricated from head to tail. The chillies are finely chopped, so too are the onions and the coriander, then mixed into the fish. Once the spices and a touch of vinegar are sprinkled in, the stench of mackerel is replaced by a deep aromatic effulgence, like the breath of the sea if it had just blown through Goa on the way to the kitchen.
Now is when the performance reaches its climax.
Her hand grasps for a measured quantity of the fish, now mixed in egg yolk. She tosses it a few times in her palm, feeling the weight, adding or subtracting as she sees fit, squeezing the excess juices luxuriously into the bowl. When she is satisfied she begins to massage it with her fingers, smoothen the cylindrical egg-shaped mass until perfect, before dropping it into some breadcrumbs
She forms the cutlets on a chopping board. One hand open and empty, the other with a bread knife, each used as counterforce to shape the fish as it takes on the crumb. First a few slow taps with the flat of the knife on top to flatten, then sultry pushes along the sides against the palm to give appropriate height and shape. Each one is flipped and rotated and pressed and moulded, until the crumbs cover every inch and they are finally ready to be fried. If you watch my mum do all this, or my aunt, they do it just the same way. They’ve watched my granny, taken notes, and have had years of practice themselves.
It takes my granny a good part of an hour to do twenty cutlets. Cutlets that are devoured in minutes, seconds if they are grabbed straight from the pan.
There is magic infused in her movements, a meticulousness and a delicacy that comes with artistry. As you taste the final product, feel the steaming heat on your tongue and palate, the herbaciousness of coriander, the turmeric tint and richness, and the distinct character of gorgeous mackerel, you appreciate home cooking as you never normally do.
Sounds very Romantic doesn’t it? But the truth is that while her cutlets are lovely and they are the originals, my mum makes them much better. Improvements have been made over the years, things added and experimented with among the sisters (my aunts), and they’ve made these cutlets what they are: heaven on earth. I do, however, think my granny makes it the piece of culinary theatre that it is, and a work of art and love definitely worth documenting.
I am spoilt boy, these cutlets are my Proustian madeleines, though I’m sure if ol’ Prousty had a bite of these fishy beauties he’d most definitely add another chapter to his À la recherche du temps perdu.