Tinned Mackerel Curry

By Vanessa Perera

As I sat carefully blowing into a spoonful of steaming basmati rice and tinned mackerel curry, my homesickness worsened. I had grown tired of eating cheap cornflakes and lactose-free milk for every meal over the past five months since I arrived in Melbourne. On some days, I would add a handful of berries into my cereal bowl and on other days a sliced banana, but on most days, it was just a bowl of plain cornflakes and milk.  

But today I’ve been eating rice and tinned mackerel curry, while watching the autumn leaves slowly fall from my apartment window.  

It’s not that I enjoyed eating rice and tinned mackerel curry, but I associated it as a symbol of the resilience and perseverance of the Sri Lankan people. When wars, protests, economic crises and the pandemic forced our politicians to impose sudden curfews, confining us to our homes and restricting us from our weekly trips to the market, we turned to our bulk-bought staple food— rice and tinned mackerel— food which sustains us for weeks.  

I loved the way [1]Achcha cooked tinned mackerel, although what I ate today tasted nowhere near as good as hers. 


I was always amazed when I watched her cook, and it was why I looked forward to the weekend as a child, so that I could watch her cook and eat a meal with her while she told me stories about her childhood and my [2]Thaththa’s. Saturday lunch at Achcha’s soon became a tradition — our little tradition.  

Our lunches were simple, yet hearty — cooked from humble ingredients, most of them fresh from the garden and a few others bought by Thaththa from his weekly visit to the market. On some Saturdays, Achcha would cook a beetroot curry, snake gourd the next week, long beans the week after and potatoes the following week. Every Saturday she cooked something special, but rice and tinned mackerel curry remained on the menu each week. Three months into committing to our Saturday tradition, Achcha’s tinned mackerel curry recipe was imprinted in my mind. Imprinted through the repetition of her actions in the kitchen, and her commitment to upholding our tradition every weekend, despite her arthritic hands and unsteady feet.  

‘First, wash your hands,’ she would instruct me, pulling out a stool she kept underneath the sink so that I could reach over and wash my hands. Achcha’s sink looked like a large basin cemented onto her kitchen wall— it was so large that two toddlers could be simultaneously bathed in it.  

‘Done!’ I would scream as I shook my wet hands over the kitchen floor, splattering water over Achcha’s dog, Rover, who lay sleeping on the floor. He was used to my mischievous behaviour and continued to sleep in ignorance.  

‘Did you use soap?’ she would ask me, knowing very well that I was too excited to start cooking with her, and probably didn’t. With an exasperating sigh I would reach out to the small cube of soap beside the dishwash bar and sponge, and would begin to scrub in between my fingers, picking out the playdough stuck in my fingernails. Of the many important things Achcha taught me, she always reminded me to wash my hands before eating or preparing a meal— something that comes so naturally to me in my adulthood after her constant nagging.  

While I dried my hands, she would pick the mackerel tin from the kitchen cupboard where it was neatly stacked beside the condensed milk, jelly, and a can of peach halves in syrup that she saved for a special occasion. The mackerel tin was unmistakable— plain and slightly corroding on the edges just like the black dye that disguised Achcha’s greys in her sixties. It had a bright red label, often soiled by the brine that escaped the tin flap when Achcha struggled to open it with her arthritic fingers. And when she finally opened it, all those at home knew that it was mackerel we would eat for lunch because of its pungent smell. Tinned mackerel does not look pretty, but the local brand placed a photograph of three large chunks of mackerel— bones intact, placed over a bed of salad leaves and tomato slices, while four onion rings, a boiled egg cut into wedges and a chunk of cucumber which made it look far more appetising than it was— picture an American spam tin from the 1950s.  

‘Take this and bring me some [3]karapincha, kaffir lime leaves and three green chillies from the garden,’ Achchawould say, offering me a red plastic bowl. The plastic on one end was discoloured by the heat of the sun which reached her dish drying rack in the kitchen, and the other end slightly jagged with canine teeth marks because Rover had used it as a chew toy once.  

I would run into the garden like the wind, pretending to be a superhero from the cartoons I watched every Saturday morning, and as I stood in front of the karapincha tree trying to remember what Achcha asked me to bring, I would be fascinated by a passing by garden lizard, a butterfly, a bird, a plane… 

‘Did you get what I asked you to?’ Achcha would shout from the kitchen window, and I would stare blankly back at her. Worried that I had hurt myself, she would walk outside as fast as she could, and would carefully start plucking the leaves and chillies from the shrubs in the garden— placing them in the red bowl I held in my palms. 

As we both head towards the kitchen, I would try to race her, knowing that I would beat her to it anyway. In the kitchen, Thaththa’s childhood rattan chair, now my princess throne, awaits me with the children’s magazine from last week’s newspaper placed on top of it. 

‘But I don’t want to read the paper! I want to watch you cook,’ I would fuss.   

‘Yes, you can watch, but don’t get too close to the stove. And I want to hear you read a page from the magazine before lunch,’ she would say. She was a woman that kept her word, but most of all she admired people who did the same— another trait I got from Achcha.

I would then watch her finely chop the onions, garlic, ginger, and tomato using a sharp old knife— ‘this is your great grandmother’s knife,’ she would say, referring to my [4]Seeya’s [5]Amma. My great grandmother taught Achcha to cook when all she knew was how to make a decent cup of tea. While Achcha chopped the ingredients for the mackerel curry [6]temperaduwa, she would tell me stories about my great grandmother and Seeya who I had never met.  

‘Was she old and scary like the wicked witch in Snow White?’ I would ask Achcha.  

‘No, she wasn’t. She loved me like my own mother and taught me so many things, especially to cook,’ she would say.  

The women of Achcha’s generation were convinced that their place was in the kitchen, and every young woman of marrying age was expected to know her way around the kitchen. Achcha’s mother passed away when she was just fourteen, and she was more committed to becoming a qualified nurse rather than learning the art of becoming a housewife from her older sisters. In that sense, my Achcha was quite the rebel.  

Once the aromats for the temperaduwa were chopped, Achcha would neatly spread them out on a plastic plate. She would compartmentalise the plate, reserving a corner for each ingredient.  

As she walked to the spice rack and rummaged for the homemade roasted curry powder, I would sneak in two or three pieces of chopped tomato into my mouth. I loved eating fresh tomatoes and Achcha knew this; this is why she would chop two tomatoes instead of one on Saturdays. On some attempts, I would succeed at gobbling the tomatoes behind her back, and on others she would see me, and would simply laugh at me as I hid a handful of chopped tomatoes behind my back with a cheeky grin on my face.  

Achcha would then pick a clay pot from underneath the firewood stove my Seeya built for her decades ago. Although she had a gas cooker, she always preferred to cook curries in a clay pot on the firewood stove.   

‘It saves gas and also makes tastier curries,’ she would say.  

She would grab the matchbox, strike a matchstick, and light up the dry firewood she had already placed earlier that morning. Achcha then placed the clay pot on top of the stove and gently drizzled in some coconut oil from the glass bottle beside the sink— heating up the oil to make the temperaduwa.  

She would use a pipe made of old cardboard and newspaper pieces— picture the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll— and blows air through her mouth into the burning firewood. 

‘Why do you have to do that, Achcha?’ I would ask.  

‘To make sure that the fire burns easily,’ she would say as she adds the aromatics and spices into the hot oil.  

As our noses become tingly from the intense aroma of the frying ingredients— both Achcha and I would simultaneously turn away from the food, preparing ourselves to sneeze. These sneezes reassured us that the temparaduwa was done, and that it was time to add in the mackerel, coconut milk, chillie powder and the seasoning while we wait for the curry to start bubbling away.  

It was also time for me to read a page from the children’s magazine aloud to Achcha before lunch was served.    


I loved watching Achcha cook tinned mackerel, although what I ate today tasted nothing as good as hers.  

It may have been because I couldn’t find a clay pot in Melbourne to cook it in, or maybe it was because my apartment didn’t have a firewood stove. But maybe it was the regret I had when I couldn’t commit to upkeeping our Saturday tradition as I grew older. Maybe it was the regret of not visiting her every Saturday like I used to when she was bedridden and unable to cook for ten years.  

And in that tenth year, when I decided to surprise Achcha by cooking her mackerel curry on the firewood stove for lunch, it was in that tenth year, that I laid awake in bed for weeks after I had witnessed her cremation.  

It’s not that I enjoyed eating tinned mackerel curry, but I associate it with my beloved Achcha— her simple ways, her reassuring presence, and her unconditional love for me.  

[1] Achcha – grandmother 

[2] Thaththa – father 

[3] Karapincha – curry leaves 

[4] Seeya – grandfather 

[5] Amma – mother 

[6] Temparaduwa – shallow frying spices and aromatics at the beginning of the cooking process to enhance a dish’s flavour



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