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Eat, play, protest: A life with prawns
An essay and recipe for Bittersweet prawns. Words by Rajkamal M, and photographs by Niranjana R and Palanikumar M. Translated from Tamil by Niranjana R.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our nineteenth writer for Cooking from Life is Rajkamal M, whose essay has been translated from the Tamil by Niranjana R. You can read our archive of recipes and essays here.
Eat, play, protest: A life with prawns
An essay and recipe for Bittersweet prawns. Words by Rajkamal M, and photographs by Niranjana R and Palanikumar M.
(This essay was originally written by Rajkamal in Tamil, as உணவு விளையாட்டு, போராட்டம்: இறாலும், வாழ்வியலும். You can read the Tamil version and its corresponding recipe here. This essay is part of a Neidhal Kaimanam, an upcoming coastal community cookbook compiled by Niranjana and Bhagath Singh in collaboration with the fishing community on India's Coromandel Coast, to be released in January 2024. For further information on it, please visit this website.)
When I was growing up, prawns were both food and playmates. I used to sit next to my mother as she peeled and de-veined them before cooking a meal, and was delighted to see them swim backwards when we went boating in the vast, brackish Pazhaverkadu lake. Our home is in the lake’s eponymous town and is just a stone’s throw away from the water, beside a historic lighthouse which is separated from the sea by only a strip of thick, white sand. Most people in my hometown are fishers who work in the lake, estuary and sea, and our household – like many others’ here – runs on an economy of prawns.
Once I started school, I could hardly wait to get home so I could join my father on his evening fishing trip. He would navigate to the site, drop his anchor and get into the muddy water, and I would stay on the boat and fetch him things – net, poles, stakes, and rope. He would set this up perpendicular to the shore, the net unfurled like a barrier as he stood neck-deep in water. He would then dip in and out, weaving the net under the poles and laying it partly on the lake bed.
‘When the prawns swim in, we need to move faster than them and secure the nets,’ he would explain to me, occasionally emerging with his feet pierced by the sharp underwater shells, his body trained to function despite the injuries that he incurred every day. I would watch as he went all in, irrevocably entangled and intertwined with the wetland; the marine, amphibious, aquatic life around him.
Some days it rained, so we would stay in the boat, my father telling me stories about Buddha and other saints we believed were anti-caste and therefore on our side. On better days my father taught me to swim. The water made me greedy, and I asked him to teach me to swim underwater, to swim without using my hands (which he called ‘crow swimming’). In time, I occasionally joined my father in the water, helping him in his work. But he never really taught me the skills and tricks of his trade. I knew what he was thinking: if I learned to fish for prawns, then I may stop going to school. So he kept me as his faithful assistant, and I never became a fisher in my own right.
Pazhaverkadu lake is part of an incredibly complex wetland system, created by the convergence of two river estuaries and the Indian Ocean. Dutch colonisers weren’t so impressed with its name, so they referred to it as ‘Pulicat’ – which is now also its English name. When the British ruled, they built a navigation canal that linked it to the rest of the Coromandel Coast and the city of Chennai (which is an hour south of Pazhaverkadu), and they also built the first major port in Chennai. The city now has three ports; one of them was constructed in 2008, very close to Pazhaverkadu, and today it slowly inches closer to the town as it expands.
When we first heard about this port, it was only intended to be a shipyard, constructed on the Kattupalli barrier island which was formed between Pazhaverkadu and Chennai. A few years later, when opened for operation, it was classified a ‘minor port’ by the Government of India. But its effect was by no means minor – its breakwaters set off erosion, not only of the sand to its north, but also the fabric of our social life and economy.
We were already far from a perfect society, battling patriarchy, caste and capitalism. But the port project split us into two camps – supposedly pro- and anti-‘development’. Did those of us opposing it not want jobs in the modern economy?, we were asked when we organised against the port project – even though the jobs that did materialise were few, poorly paid and contracted. Did we not want to see our town develop?
In 2018, the port was acquired by the Adani conglomerate (owned by the billionaire and India’s second-richest man Gautam Adani) who announced plans to expand it from its current size of 330 acres to over 6000 acres. This was to be done through extensive dredging, extracting land from sea and building more breakwaters. Things now got existential for Pazhaverkadu – if the sea was to be filled with sand to make a port to our south, water would have to flow somewhere, and every assessment showed that this ‘somewhere’ would be our town. With these developments, our lives would be changed for good. Pazhaverkadu would soon be submerged.
Coastal life isn’t all blue seas, open skies and a fresh breeze; for fishers like those in my community, it is also hard work. And for us in Pazhaverkadu, prawns aren’t just our catch – they are a key part of the elaborate wetland system we call home. The prawns thrive in mangroves and muddy waters, feeding, cleaning up the water and becoming food for the bigger fish out in the sea. When our town was mobilising against the port project, women cooked up a seafood feast and invited local authorities to eat – an attempt to make them reconsider if it was worth losing all this for the port. If only they – who had the power to decide on these matters – knew the sheer bounty of taste, sustenance, and joy that we experience from our food and surroundings, would they reconsider? In this way, prawns became an ally in our protests.
Much like our beloved prawns, today we are feed for someone else’s big plans, so-called ‘development’. From Pazhaverkadu, we can already see the shore eroding away, the waves lapping dangerously close to palm trees that sway and bend without sufficient support at their roots. If the strip of sand separating the sea from the lake was eroded, there would be no lake and no naturally caught prawns. Perhaps then fishers like my father would take up work in the burgeoning ‘shrimp farms’ that have begun to emerge – complicit in polluting groundwater and paddy fields with farm residue, all for inferior-quality prawns.
If this goes on, the incredible balance between lake, sea and sand would soon disappear. The ecosystem that nurtured the prawns I ate and played with growing up would no longer exist.
In my three decades of living in Pazhaverkadu, the winter rains have always brought a fantastic catch of prawns. The rains muddy the waters so much that prawns surface all over the lake. Buyers know this, so the prices they offer during these periods are nearly ten times less. During the monsoons, my father would just bring the prawns he had caught (sometimes with me accompanying him) home. My mother would have a blue canvas sheet prepared at the paved entrance, and we would empty our baskets onto this canvas, pouring out the prawns.
My siblings and I would pick which ones we wanted for kulambu, to go with our breakfast idlis that day. More prawns would be set aside to be fried for lunch. The rest would be carried, on the canvas, to the terrace, to be dried as they were under the sun. When the prawns had dried, my siblings and I would each pick a handful, dredge them in our favourite blend of spice powders, and hand them to our mother to be fried in hot oil. Bittersweet as they were, nothing else I’ve eaten has ever come close.
I now live in Chennai, but I visit Pazhaverkadu every week to pick up seafood for my two-year-old son to enjoy. This summer, there were unseasonal rains there, and on one of the days when I was visiting my parents, sure enough, I found my mother chasing crows away from the prawns that were drying on the terrace. When I saw her, I wished I had brought my son along. But no matter, I thought, and I bent down and gathered a handful of prawns. I went to the kitchen and fried some in spices, onions and tomatoes for a snack, to eat while we stood guard on the terrace that afternoon.
A recipe for Bittersweet prawns
Dried prawns are an absolute delicacy, concentrated with flavour, even at the cost of the juiciness of fresh ones. Prawns are best dried straight off the net and onto your scalding rooftop. But, I appreciate this is not possible outside Pazhaverkadu. You will likely be using store-bought dried prawns, which are great too.
While purchasing, choose kind that remains firm and whole – these are good for frying. The flaky ones you may find in stores are meant for soup stock or porridge, not suitable here. Both ‘baby shrimp’ and regular sized ones are fine and available in South & East Asian stores in the UK. If they’re encrusted with salt or taste salty (you can try eating one raw, no harm), it would help to soak them in water for about 10 minutes and drain. But don’t soak for too long.
Time: 20 minutes
1 tbsp neutral flavoured oil or fat
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
1 red onion, thinly sliced
2 green chillies, thinly sliced
1 tomato, thinly sliced
½ tsp ginger-garlic paste
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp ground coriander
A handful of dried prawns (about 1 cup or 50g-80g)
Salt, to taste, this depends on whether the dried prawns are already salted
1. Warm the oil in a frying pan or saucepan set over a medium heat. Add the cumin and fennel seeds, fry for 30 seconds and once they start to sputter, add the onion, chilli and a pinch of salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, until golden.
2. Stir in the tomatoes, ginger-garlic paste and turmeric, and cook for a minute or so, until fragrant.
3. Next, add the chilli powder, ground coriander and dried prawns. Sprinkle in about 100ml water to help the process along. Season to taste, being mindful that the dried prawns may already be salted. The delicious fried prawns are ready once they have absorbed all the flavour and take on a golden glow. (At this point, you could add more water and let it simmer for about 10 minutes to make a dried prawn Thokku. This can be bottled and used as a condiment for a few days.)
Rajkamal M is a filmmaker and social activist based in Chennai and Pazhaverkadu. He holds a Masters degree in Journalism & Mass Communication from Madras University, where he is now pursuing a PhD. He has written and directed several short films and is now making a feature length film as part of a Filmmakers’ Collective in Chennai. When he’s not making films, he organises young people in his town towards progressive environmental and social causes, which, for him, go together. At other times, he goes on deep dives into the history of Pazhaverkadu, its waterways and mangroves.
Niranjana R is a journalist turned urban geographer; writing about the city of Chennai and its surrounds has been a big part of her work in both these roles. She is interested in the many lives lived around water in its myriad forms in the city – sea, river, marsh, lake, canal, groundwater and rainwater. Along with her colleague Bhagath Singh, she is putting together a coastal community cookbook in collaboration with fishers along the Coromandel coast. Niranjana teaches Geography at Queen Mary University of London.
Palanikumar M is an award winning photo journalist and visual ethnographer documenting land, labour and life amidst the waterways. He reports for PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) and has trained young photographers which led to an exhibition titled North Chennai, Reframed in Chennai.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. These recipes were tested by Joanna Jackson.