The shrill of the phone punctuates the idyllic silence of a lazy afternoon.
I am immersed in a book, the epic tale of Dowager Empress Cixi, a concubine with humble beginnings credited to have ushered in the modern age in China.
It takes a couple of rings before I disengage from the book and answer the call.
Guess what ? S asks, childlike excitement stark in his voice.
What ? I ask, still absorbed in the book. The British are desperate to have more Chinese ports opened for trade. The xenophobic Chinese emperor refuses. An ominous war looms large.
I found Ilish in a non-descript restaurant here in Saigon, he rattles. And it’s delicious.
Dark humour, I chuckle to myself, S surely must be missing home food. That it’s been a hectic year for him is an understatement, he has been perpetually traveling and just weekends at home has emerged as the new normal in our lives.
Ok, I get you, I sympathise, I’ll cook Ilish for you this weekend.
I am not joking, he assures, the fish I am having here cannot not be Ilish.
That grabs my attention. I put the book down.
Ilish in Vietnam ? A Bangladeshi joint ? I enquire. Stoked by curiosity.
Nah, he debunks the hypothesis. A local place run by an elderly Vietnamese lady.
Radio silence from me. And how’s it cooked ? I hear myself ask.
Stewed in coconut milk. A whiff of curry powder. The earthy perfume of fresh turmeric. And the chillies are a fiendish rage.
Now back to my Ilish, he asserts. Speak later.
The line goes dead.
I start researching in frenzy.
Search the Internet for Vietnamese Ilish recipes.
Turn to my Vietnamese cook-books for answers.
But Lady Luck isn’t smiling this evening and I draw a blank.
It’s while rummaging through Maa’s diaries of recipes almost a month later that I stumble upon Ilish Chirer Jhol.
Maa’s hasty scribbles. Possibly while listening to a cookery chat on the radio, I muse.
There’s no mention of the provenance of the dish, so no claim on if or not this is a classic or the brainchild of someone eager to experiment with the queen of fish.
What is striking though is the host of similarities with what S had relished in Saigon (barring of course the fried chire)
Definitely worth a try.
Maybe with some minor tweaks of my own, I make a mental note.
S is back home in the early hours of Saturday.
By nine, done with his coffee, he is ready for his ritualistic visit to the fish market.
And returns, no surprises, with a gorgeous Ilish.
I cook a Ilish Chirer Jhol.
It doesn’t take him long to comment on the stark similarities with what he had savoured in Saigon.
And that perfume of chire in the curry, he remarks with a smile of contentment, elevates the dish to the sublime.
Ilish Chirer Jhol. Pristine Ilish. Stewed in coconut milk. The perfume of chire. The earthy fragrance of cumin paste. The rage of chillies.
A perfect symphony.