Paperback review: Following Fish, By Samanth Subramanian

The one's that didn't get away

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The Independent Culture

Samanth Subramanian travels around the coastline of the Indian subcontinent, tasting his way through fishing communities from Bengal to Goa, Mumbai to Gujurat. Oddly enough, he's not a huge fan of fish and it has to be very good indeed before he will praise it. One dish of fried fish is described as "chewy and fibrous, like a better class of cardboard", a fish curry is "watery and bland", a piece of mackerel "dull and uncooperative".

But when he eats fish at its best, the writing becomes lyrical: "The mackerel, fresh and firm, came away easily in big, moist flakes ... the curry scalded my mouth, seared my tonsils, and sent parades of flavour marching up and down my tongue." Tellingly the two best meals he eats are in people's houses, not restaurants. But this isn't just food-writing – it is also a travel book and Subramanian's interest is in the land and its people. He visits toddy shops and temples, and always finds men with stories to tell (it's usually men; women still don't have much of a public presence in India). He comes across a "cure" for asthma which involves swallowing a live fish, discovers how the loss of a fisherman's ear lobe in the 16th century led to the Parava folk of Tamil Nadu converting to Christianity, and hears an epic account of trying to catch a sailfish, which swims at nearly 70mph and has a fin sharp enough to cut a hand off. It's beautifully and often wittily written; I loved the description of a fish market where octopus tentacles trail from baskets "as if they were about to engage in a climactic piece of dirty business in a horror movie". A book which made me want to travel. And eat.