It’s less than a week away from Turkey Day (literally my favorite holiday on the planet) and am sort of hedging the turkey in my head. Having become pescatarian in the past year – will Thanksgiving ever be the same again without the usual “take my breath away” moment of when La Grande Dame emerging onto the table? Can fish ever really be a substitute for the regal turkey on Thanksgiving? Oh wait and are there any plant-based substitutes available in Mumbai where I now live? Didn’t think so.
Having grown up nomadically between the US, Turkey, Japan and Indonesia due to the nature of my father’s work, Thanksgiving was one of the most celebrated holidays in our home. In the pre-digital age of the 1980s, most US Embassies and Consulates did a remarkable job through Commissaries and the like of bringing us the best choices of turkey whether we were in Istanbul, Yokohama or Jakarta. Embassies hosted wonderful Thanksgiving dinners but most often, Thanksgiving was a holiday of homecoming that was celebrated with gusto and love for friends, family and visitors wherever we were. My father, who worked in oil and gas, frequently had colleagues from faraway places including many from the US who were posted on long-term assignments in the various locations we lived in during Thanksgiving. Our home was always open to those visiting as it also was to my mother’s international school colleagues who were often not able to fly back to the US for just the Thanksgiving weekend. So, the holiday has always been about “gathering” – a prevalent theme in my life imbued from my parents who had an uncanny and such an effortless way of hosting with ease, warmth, and a largeness that was almost intimidating to observe for the shy only child that I was.
The accessories of Stove Top stuffing, cranberry sauces of all kinds through the Commissaries which were a part of our every day lives made these celebrations all the sweeter and more exciting. While Yokohama and Istanbul had grocery stores that were well-equipped with the nuances of the Thanksgiving spread, in Indonesia we relied heavily on Commissary shipments for condiments and accessories that still had long wait times to avail due to the higher than expected demand during the holiday season.
But that’s all a digression. What do we do in Mumbai for THIS turkey day? In creating and building my own family with two third culture kids, I began hosting Thanksgiving the year I arrived in Mumbai 15 years ago. Some years I would make the turkey on my own and other years we’ve catered. For the first pesca turkey day am perusing recipes for what might rock the boat beyond the usual brussel sprouts, asparagus, sweet pumpkin and beet root. Ultimately, the answer lies in what will be the ultimate healing balm to placate the deep turkey longing anticipation for what it once was and meant for all these years? Can we get into a new relationship with a fish turkey or does that sound too vile?
Speaking of fish turkey, that takes me to the years during grad school when my parents still posted overseas that I was hosted by childhood friends in their homes in the Westchester area for turkey day. One of the intriguing yet in my eyes unpalatable innovations served during such gatherings for the First Gen Bengali American immigrant parents (a tad different from my own who were more prone to a misplaced clinging to their roots) was the concept of “maacher jhol” with the turkey. “Maacher jhol” or fish curry to a Bengali is what a burger is to an American. It’s existed from way before you were born and will continue on for eons to come. It’s the staple of the Bengali fish curry made of hilsa, trout and nowadays even salmon or halibut. Growing up, the particular characteristics that were unappetizing for me where its protruding head, beady dead eyes popping, excess of cumin seeds, all slither-slathered in an overdose of turmeric and potato curry . I never could quite get what was appealing about the “maacher jhol” preparation with it’s assorted visual & aromatic oddities. Particularly, next to La Grande Dame the aroma of the “maacher jhol” felt like it took the wind out of the magical aroma of the curtain raising when we see “Her” glide onto the dinner table shimmering and beaming. I couldn’t quite understand how many Bengali families felt jubilant at this bizarre preparation seated next to La Grande Dame at the table trying to steal her thunder in some way. I mean if it was crab curry, salmon tikka masala or “bhekti pathuri” with mustard garnishing I would still get it – but the maacher jhol with the turkey? Seriously? Nope – just SMH.
Perhaps my reaction to “maacher jhol” has to do with my unresolved PTSD of seeing those same fish heads protruding for years at dinner parties? The sight of even that trout and snapper bathed in turmeric curry with slithery tomato skin swimming in the curry, in an aquarium algae-like way, nauseated me at best. My mother would raise her brows and tell me it was important to appreciate not just Bengali music but also it’s cuisine. My response would be to slink into a corner, quietly holding my breath wondering when we would be leaving the family friend’s dinner party – albeit a messy moment in the journey of the cross-cultural Bengali American upbringing.
Prone to digressing am now back to the original question – what will it be for THIS year? After shunning the “maacher jhol” option for years am I now back to a fish again for Turkey Day? Only if she can sit in tandem with the brightest Grande Dame of the occasion without disrupting her aura or stealing her thunder in any way. Will it be a salmon curry or a grilled halibut with rosemary baby potatoes? Hmmmm….me thinks it’s the latter.