Tuesday, May 08, 2007

On killing fish…

Indian cooks have this bad habit of overcooking seafood. They kill the fish. Kill it till the flavor is lost and the fish looses identity. I like my seafood coaxed into the pan, gently cooked and identifiably served – pretty and palatable.

I like Japanese food. But I am not a great fan of sushi and it has nothing to do with the food. Once long back as I was traipsing out of a tube station in London a Korean kid in a sushi brand t-shirt offered me a free (promotional) sushi from a blister pack and I took it. Yes I know. I should have thought twice about raw salmon on the roadside. That mouth size packet of the fashionable global delicacy slammed me to my bed in an attic in North London and kept me there for two days. It was a foul case of food poisoning. So no raw fish for me, thank you.

However I took to lightly cooked seafood from other Southeast Asian cuisine – Korean, Vietnamese and Thai. There are two Indian instances where I know my seafood order.

The masala-fried prawns in a local restaurant in Panjim called Anushka are to die for. Anushka is a restaurant in the car park of a house right after Miramar beach. This is a place where locals land up for Kingfisher stubbies and seafood munchies after a hard day at work. (How does one work hard in Goa?) The family that owns Anushka is from Salcette and Salcette cooking is imaginative – a bold mix of spices, vinegar and jaggery. The prawns in Recheado masala are large enough to hold by their unshelled tail and crunch into the juicy meat with vinegar packing the punch and jaggery soothing you all at once. The prawns are cooked right always. They are crunchy and not rubbery.

There is friend of mine in Mumbai who loves her seafood. We love going to a Gomantak (Goan non-christian) cuisine restaurant called Gazalee (means conversation in Konkini). Of course, we end up eating a significant part of the ocean food chain. But we never miss the steamed white Pomfret. Elsewhere, I am not a great fan of white Pomfret as a fish. It is a fish designed for the uninitiated. I prefer black. However, the steamed Pomfret here cannot be disregarded. This is filleted fish with a spicy paste of coriander leaves, mint leaves, green chillies and coconut generously applied across the de-boned split. Without much ado the fish is steamed. I guess it is very difficult to overcook when steaming (unless the chef has passed out or is watching a 70s candy floss love comedy on the tube).
When it comes to the table the fish is intact in little bit of soupy sauce all ready with a squeeze of lemon on top. The fork (always) flakes the fish into pristine white bites of heaven.

Next time you cook fish, coax it and cook light. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Indian Chinese – The invasion of a hybrid cuisine

Long back when I went to visit my brother in Dallas he took me to a restaurant called Bombay Chinese – Bangladeshis serving horrendous food. Till then I did not believe that there was cuisine that the non-residents yearned for called Indian Chinese. This is what we Indians living in India know as Chinese food – the peppery, fiery, double schezwan style cooking with powdered coriander and sometimes garam masala. Indian Chinese is the cheaper version of the Chinese cuisine available at mid range hotels in downtown India.

Gobi Manchurian, as the name suggests, is an epitome and a cherub offspring of such a cultural culinary merger. I know places in hinterland Karnataka where Gobi Manchurian is a form of entertainment than a food. Ask a guy from Mysore what he does in the evenings, he will proudly proclaim ‘I go to Ashoka Road and eat Gobi Manchurian’. For an Indian this cuisine is as easy as understanding ‘cauliflower pakodas in sauce’.

The geographical variations of Indian Chinese are astounding with additions of ajwain and mustard oil in the north, vegetarian fervor with sweet and chaat masala in the west, more sweet and poppy seeds in the east and coriander powder garnished with hair oil in the south. The penetration of this cuisine is deep and wide – weaker only to the behemoth Punjabi cuisine (that is another story). I know restaurants in Belgaum and Chingelput where the menu is generously sprinkled with haka, hunan and schezwan along with traditional local food. The best (?) such dish that I have come across in schezwan chilli idlis. Let me explain this here.

You dice a few idlis and throw them into a kadai (the Indian wok) along with generous portions of schezwan chilli sauce (yes, the one in conical bottle with fake Chinese fonts all over it), sautéed red chillies, a lot of tomato ketchup (preferably Kissan), sesame seeds and curry leaves. Let the edges of the idly crisp a little and it can be served on a square piece of plaintain leaf over a stainless steel plate along with a small cup of chutney. The locals think that this is departure and the visitors think that it is a local variant. It is a win-win.

Later when I was starved of spicy food I went to a vague Chinese restaurant in Charlotte and discovered the American version of Chinese – it was $8 buffet. All the dishes where cooked in fat, were heavy, bland, reeked of old fish, barbecue sauce and excess monosodium glutamate. I understand desis and their yearning now!