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.

Looking forward to the ‘Super Duper Spicy’ mackerel curry

So on Saturday I have a night in London and a need to find something to eat. I cast my mind back to whatever I might have read about over the last few months on good places to eat in London and all I could think of was a review that Jay Rayner had done for The Observer of a place that did an obscenely good mackerel curry.

Happily all I had to do was put into Google – Jay Rayner mackerel – and the review was in front of me in all its sweaty glory.

Here is a taster:-

Whether the mackerel curry at Janetira in London’s Soho is an experience you will wish to accumulate will be a judgement call. I’m glad I’ve done it. In the way of this particular dish I suspect I will be compelled to do it again, even though to the western palate it is more wrongness than you could find in the locked bottom drawer of a Tory MP’s filing cabinet. They make much of its heat. It is listed not just on the menu in the simple dining room, a vaguely gloomy modernist space of blocky dark wood tables, but also on a blackboard, where is written: “Super Duper Spicy – we dare you.” There are four chilli pictograms by it. You get the idea.

So that is where I will be heading on Saturday night. It will probably be a good thing I will be waking up alone on Sunday morning.

White chicken curry

Now that the cold has come down I have taken to filling up the bird feeders. There is an awkward two weeks or so between me doing this, the birds feasting on what is in there, and the squirrals taking over and taking on a free meal. We are still in the pre-squirral run and all day there has been a steady procession of tits, with the occasional interruption from a nuthatch, taking their fill.

Then this afternoon there was a walk down through West Kirby past the old war memorial. I have memories of being up there thirty years or so ago in November and the place being filled with men  and women playing their trumpets. There was no-one up there today in the wind and the hail but it was still a quiet place up from the road and with a view taking in the empty sweep of the the sea and the hint of snow in the distance.

In the cold there was not much better than a chicken curry to eat.

I had one a week or so ago that was a disaster – too many squashed onions and curdled yogurt – everyone was very polite about it. This evening’s curry was better:-

– two or three finely sliced onions cooked in oil with some garlic and ginger.

– a mixture of spice. This time ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and cloves. These were mixed to a paste with some oil and as the onions started to wilt stirred in.

– the chicken pieces were added and allowed to brown a bit at the edges.

– as it did that a couple of tins of coconut milk was stirred in together with a scrape of lemon rind and bay leaves.

– on a very low heat it was ready an hour later to be eaten with good rice.

Hot weather

We didn’t see the man for three clear days after that, here, in the pub. We saw him around alright but it was another day before he was out on the water. They must of had their breakfast and taken their fill and he’d decided he’d had enough of the mackerel. The boat stayed tied up by the small bit of pier they had there and standing up here we could see the family at play.

It took them some time to come out. It was one of those days when the sun came here for the keeping and there was not a movement in the air or anything there to blemish the sky and under your feet the grass starts to crisp up and dry. The day was still in the heat and the whole of the thing slowed down and if you had a mind for it you’d think it was worthwhile spending a winter here for a day like that.

You can watch whole days play out from up here. Take a pint in your hand and there is enough of a view to take in through the window the pier and three or four houses. It may be a bit like watching ants but you can take in enough of their movement to see what they are doing.

And so we could see their black figures come out in the sun and they all walked down to were the water started and we could see them sit down to look at it as if they had not seen water before.