2010-03-27 00:00

DEEDEE, say I to Don’t-Delay Pillay. Deedee, man, how are you going to cook that fish?

Ubs, says Deedee. Yes I know that, man, but what are you going to do with the herbs?

Put it, says Deedee, and I realise he doesn’t know what the bloody hell will happen to his fish between slapping it down on the kitchen table and its magical reappearance on the dining table an hour later. Indeed, there’s a gaggle of family females buzzing about in his kitchen who would be sore startled if he were to start cooking his own fish.

Then I remember what old Mrs Venkath told me when I was about 13 and brought home my first shad. The best thing you can do with a really good species of fish is almost nothing. These shad are still so fresh and floppy because you have pulled out their gills, said she. Gills are where decay starts, and dead smell. These shad still smell of the sea, and we will fillet them and put a tiny, tiny spread of butter and place these fillets under the grill and when they are getting just a little bit brownish from the butter we will take them out and eat them with a nice salad. Never put salt for cooking. Salt will kill all flavour. If you like salt put it afterwards.

Shad schmad. This stumpnose you should see which DD has just wrangled ashore after twenty minutes with light tackle: firm of muscle, energetic, al dente in the eating and tasty, man, tasty; evolution has done a grand job on this fish, there’s nothing to improve.

DD rips out its guts and gills, Mrs DD rips off its scales and sticks it in the oven at 180 degrees while the poor beast’s eyes are still shiny. Well okay, she slashed it about a bit because it’s a big fish, to let in the heat. If you want a garnish, says Mrs DD, when he’s about done take him out and lay on a few thin-thin onion rings and tomato slices with soft cheese on top and give him a good blast for five minutes; all flavours must come after the cooking. But what about the curry? say I. She wipes her hands on her apron. No-o-o, says Mrs DD, curry is for supermarket fish. Hake.

All the above wisdom I impart to my friend Frik, who owns a ski-boat and runs a small sort of eatery in his front garden, just three or four tables under the cool umkuhlu tree where a few select fish gourmets come for breakfast when he’s caught something special.

A modest sign on the tree says Frik’s Alimentation. Some fish, declares Frik, are almost all-cooking, otherwise you might as well be eating A4 computer paper. Ar, come on! say I, I have never come across a fish with no virtue whatsoever. You have been living in a fool’s paradise, he declares, you had better sit down whilst I explain a few of the world’s festive eating conventions. The English eat pigs’ heads with apples in their mouths, the French eat frogs, Americans eat turkeys for reasons of pure chauvinism and the Poles eat carp because in pre-refrigeration days such fish would stay alive all day under wet sacks between Bydgoszcz and Bialystok, so you could do your angling well in advance.

But this fish is all bones and recycled computer-paper. I shall take you to Midmar, says he, where you will catch a carp, whereafter I shall cook it in your very presence according to an ancient Chinese recipe.

Within the hour at Midmar I get into this beaut two-kilogram Mirror Carp with big glisteny scales, using a big lump of custard-flavoured phuthu on a shad hook.

We’re back by mid-afternoon, and the kitchen ritual starts. Frik hauls out from his alchemist’s cave a towering bamboo steamer, all in interjoining parts for water, oil, steam, plasma and phlogiston, and rigs it up in a sort of blast-proof container over a fierce open gas flame. Have you done this before? I ask, with some timidity. We-e-ell, not exactly, he declares after some thought, and I move my chair back a bit.

He builds up a powerful head of steam beneath the bamboo pagoda whilst whisking up a heavily-flavoured herbal oil which he places in a cast-iron crucible on another fire until this oil boils. He places the carp in the second storey of the pagoda and grips the crucible with welders’ gloves and tips the boiling oil into the boiling water and a terrible blast rattles the neighbourhood windows and dogs think it’s Guy Fawkes and hide under beds and their owners phone the SPCA.

A mushroom cloud of steam hides us both. The carp has turned bright pink and exploded like popcorn. It tastes like flavoured computer paper, but highly textured. Frik’s beard and eyebrows have gone to tight Zulu curls. His face is sort of poached, but triumphant.

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