Mackerel curry – a primordial soup

In summer down the left hand side of the pier in Ahakista up against the wall the fishermen keep a couple of old rusty chest freezers which they use for storing bait for the lobster and prawn pots. The bait is the fish that has been caught that noone wants and if there has been an abundance of mackerel some of them to. In the sun a fetid brown liquid leaks from the bottom of the freezers and runs down across the width of the pier towards the water staining the grey concrete.

Walk down the pier and take in a deep breathe through you nose and the smell isn’t that of the sea but of fish that have have been left out in the sun, it is a deep thick smell that clogs at the sinuses and catches at the back of the throat. It is the smell that I got as I put my head down over the bowl of Mackerel Curry that came out of the kitchen at Jane-tira.

I wrote about this last week and part of me had half expected that when we found the place on Saturday night it would be full and we would have to find somewhere else to eat. But peering in through the windows there were a couple of free tables and so we found ourselves sat, tucked down at the back next to a rack of metal shelving filled with packets of rice and tins of Carnation Condensed Milk.

With the menu in front of me I hesitated again. There were so many things that looked good I was worried out going for something that was just going to too hot to eat.

I was particularly taken by the thought of a plate of Gai Yang Som Tum ‘North Eastern style dish to get your hands dirty! Chargrilled marinated chicken served with Jeaw sauce (roasted chilli and tamarind relish) comes with Som Tum Thai and sticky rice.’ There were no little chili signs next to it and the Mackerel Curry had six of them there. The most that anything else on the menu had was just two. Wouldn’t it be better to get my hands dirty with some chicken to tear at rather than dirtying my mouth with a dish of fermented mackerel guts.

But then when again would I have the opportunity to try it. I could have the dirty chicken when we came back but for now I was going to have the dirty mackerel. So it was ordered.

The waiter tried to persuade me against it. I said that I understood it would be hot and he confessed the cooking of the dish was so rank that he couldn’t stay in the kitchen whilst it was being made. I felt satisfied with this.

But before the curry we had starters; delicate vegetable spring rolls, Moo Ping and Morning Glory.

The Moo Ping were skewers of pork that had been marinaded in coconut milk and grilled. They were very good but the highlight was the Morning Glory. I had no idea what it was and ordered it just for the name. It transpires that Morning Glory is a type of vegetable, a sort of mixture of green bean and spinach. It was stir fried with smoked chillies and garlic and slathered in a deep brown sauce. There was no clean way of eating it.  The sauce and garlic was flicked over the table and caught in my beard as we slurped down the green foliage. They were very good.

Then the curry arrived. It looked just as it did in the photo that came with Jay Rayner’s review in The Observer, a few green beans floating on the top and a reassuring pile of thick sliced cucumber to the side. The sauce was a thick slurry brown and in it, along with the beans there were pieces of potato, bamboo shoot and pea sized aubergines.

Having taken in the smell I tucked in although it was not really a dish to tuck into. Each mouthful was a searing blast of heat mixed with the deep dark taste of fetid salt fish. Some of the eat could be dissipated with a forkful of rice or a piece of cucumber but just as it subsided it was time to have some more. There was no point in talking and it became a battle of wills – my mouth against the heat of the dish. The fermented fish hadn’t quite broken down and it thickened the sauce and gave it some bite,  like eating at a smooth plate of fiery mud.

After half an hour I had had my fill. There was still some of the sauce at the bottom of the bowl but most of it had gone. I had another beer and cleared my head, coming back into the real world and pulling myself up and out of the primordial fug of the dish.

Writing this now I can still feel the taste of it itching under my skin and despite all the other good food on the menu there is an urge to go back for another go at the dirtiest dish of them all.

There was an hallucinogenic quality to my dreams that night. I was back in the office sat at my desk and the most urgent instruction of the day was to write a letter on behalf the people who lived above the restaurant and wanted to complain about the noise we had made on Saturday night. In my dream there had been music and dancing with the waiters to celebrate my eating of the curry and we had kept the noise and music going until the early hours of the morning. No doubt the dream was a conflation of my thoughts on the Sunday ahead learning about starting in the food business and the reality of what would be my Monday morning.

As it was the waiters, including the one who had worried about me taking the order, told me I had eaten more than most and they all confessed they couldn’t eat it and so I tried to explain to them about the pier in Ahakista and the smell of rotting fish that comes from the rusty freezers in summer.

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