H Mart is officially our weekend grocery jam. We love the bustle, the affordable prices, and the variety of, well, everything. My favorite section is the fish section; a sprawling corner occupied by tanks, ice kegs, and more square footage of counter space than any of my apartments. Here I regularly find genus of fish only read about in cookbooks – porgy, monkfish, skate wings, striped bass, et al. Recipes flit around in my head while assessing options. Professor X is usually doing his point and comment routine. It also takes me at least two passes, muttering “Ooo…maybe,” to come to a decision. After all, you must be prepared when you get to the counter since there is no number and queue system. One enters the fray, kilt off and howling.

A few weekends back, Professor X pointed at a selection of headless kingfish bodies in the clean-it-yourself section. We were pleasantly haunted by a recent Sri Lankan fish curry from Sigiri, so he suggested we try a Kerala version at home. I prodded specimens with tongs while he Googled a viable recipe. At one point, he asked what is becoming a regular question:

“You know how to do this, right?”

I assured him that processing the fish would be a simple matter of water and two good knives. Fish in cart, we moved on. However, the Lunar New Year 2008 whole tilapia incident started rattling its chains from the dregs of memory. I pushed it aside.

We didn’t get around to preparing the fish curry that day. However, I knew that I should at least clean it and cut it into steaks as soon as possible. Out of the fridge and removed from the spell of H Mart, the kingfish took on an unexpected squick factor. I cautiously unfolded a dorsal fin to realize that it was fiercely spiny, and firmly attached to the body. I opened the slit cavity to find innards and goo. The scaleless skin was too reminiscent of mahi mahi, which makes me gag, or, worse, human skin. I pressed on and thanked the gods that (1) it didn’t have a head and (2) Professor X was engrossed in a journal paper in the next room.

Usually one turns to one’s partner or spouse when in need of help. His question – “You know how to do this, right?” – is also his release from responsibility. It’s an understanding we’ve had since the beginning of our relationship. The tacit statement relieves him from the burden of blame should things go tits up. And, as it is with me and fish, they did.

I discovered that fish fins are held on by REALLY STRONG muscles that utterly defy a tidy slice, and, instead, take half the flesh and nauseous flaps of skin with them when removed. Similarly, fish vertebrae are neither delicate nor brittle. Unlike chicken bones, they don’t sever with a quick whack of the cleaver. Furthermore, the meat is easily mushed. So, as I hacked through the seven inches of torso with a less than razor sharp cleaver in the name of creating steaks, it ended up looking more like the blobs you get in a poke bowl or tartare except with bones and even more bits of that horrific skin. I pondered the mess – wondering how Shawn makes it look so effortless – and lamented our building’s non-smoking policy. I decided to err on the side of no waste, so put it in a bowl for the Professor’s consultation around dinner time.

“So…hey, do you still want fish curry for dinner tomorrow,” I asked.

“We aren’t having it tonight,” he replied

“No. I can’t look at it just yet after cleaning it.”

“Oh no. What happened?”

I produced the bowl of fish mash, and peeled back the plastic wrap. It smelled weird. It looked even worse. Professor X didn’t exactly gag, but the choked tone in his “No no no no, sweetie. We can’t eat that. Please throw it away. Don’t try to be rustic.” revealed a great deal.

I’ve since admitted that I’m out of my league beyond salmon and shrimp. We’ve also agreed to pay the extra cents per pound to have the experts at the counter do the cleaning.