Understanding the top segment of the seafood market
Farmed versus natural: there’s no doubt about it, wild seafood is in another class altogether. Wild fish (and other creatures of the deep) have specific habitats and feeding patterns. Some tuna, for instance, swim for hundreds of miles during their lifetime, often against the current. Not a big deal, you think? Passionate fishermen – as well as seafood cognoscenti – know better. The more a fish swims, the leaner its meat. It’s something akin to a regular at the gym versus a slob! So what if the habitats are different.
Salmon, for instance, swim from the coast of Norway all the way to Canada, and back. Their diet is the small crustaceans on the way, which is what makes their flesh pink. Farmed salmon on the other hand, live in giant nets inside the sea, several hundreds to a net. They don’t have the place to swim long distances and are fed pellets that the fish farmer doles out to them. Their flesh cannot turn pink, so it is done artificially. It’s the underwater difference between free-range chickens and farm-reared ones. There is one codicil however. Some countries are trying to farm fish scientifically. Not for altruistic reasons, let it be said: the cash is better.
Fresh water versus seawater: this is a difficult one. Aficionados on both sides of the fence are ready to shed blood for their cause. Seawater fish eaters find freshwater fish too muddy, while the other party finds freshwater fish sweeter. By and large, it boils down to where you live, except that like everything else, the laws of supply and demand apply here as well: no seawater fish lover, however fanatical, will refuse salmon from the River Tweed, on which absolutely no farming takes place.
The other aspect is that one man’s food really is another’s poisson. Hilsa in Bengal and karimeen in Kerala are both estuary species, and highly seasonal to boot: ideal conditions to be considered premium.
Seafood is actually a misnomer: what it includes comes as much from rivers and lakes as from the seas. And vast as the difference is between downing a dozen or so Belon oysters in a trendy eatery in Paris, from enjoying Amritsari machhi drowning in pudina chutney, both are two sides of the same coin: seafood.
So, what is the top-of-the-line seafood all about, can you get it in India and how does it differ from its poorer country cousin? Spice delves into the depths of the ocean to bring you the answers.
Fish and other creatures of the deep
Seafood is not just about fish. It includes sea and freshwater fish; fresh and preserved fish – think about smoked salmon; fish roe – of which caviar is just one; crustaceans like lobsters and crabs, prawns; mollusks – abalone, clams, mussels, oysters and scallops; cephalopods like squid and octopus; as well as cuisine-specific specialities like jellyfish, sea cucumber and shark’s fin.
Some of these ingredients are used in one or the other cuisine: have you ever heard of anyone eating fugu, the poisonous blow fish, besides a Japanese seafood lover? They’re the ones who pay top dollar prices for fresh abalone, that mollusk that becomes more prized the deeper it lives in the sea. And the reason? After the first 500 metres or so, seawater becomes calm and still, and does not respond so readily to the rays of the sun, so temperature changes are infrequent. That is the ideal requirement for abalone to grow and mature slowly. Fishing trawlers that supply seafood to Tsukiji, Tokyo’s famous fish market, are meticulous about grading their produce, not only according to where it was caught, but at what depth! Which accounts for the fame of Tsukiji market throughout the world.
It would be tempting to say that Japanese food treats seafood with more reverence than any other cuisine on the planet, but that would result in a number of angry rebuttals. Take paella for instance. It has to contain clams, mussels, monkfish, shrimp and squid in it, and they all play second fiddle to the rice that is the star of this particular show. Spain’s most readily identified dish is a masterful way of using seafood inventively.
Or take bouillabaisse, the soup that fishermen from Marseilles invented as a means of dealing with the tiny fish that nobody wanted to buy, like scorpion fish and rock fish. It’s a much copied recipe, with every chef of note making his version of this poor man’s classic, but to enjoy it today, even in the city of its birth, you cannot afford to be poor: the pattern of fishing has changed so much in the intervening years, that it is an expensive task getting those particular fish. Of course, the probability that you will have the original bouillabaisse in New York or even Paris is completely non-existent.
And what about smoked salmon? That is one dish that we may have had to learn to do without had it not been for the existence of salmon farms. One delicacy that is almost certainly headed for extinction is caviar, till today, the very symbol of luxury and class.
And if caviar is on the borderline of political incorrectness, shark’s fin clearly crosses the line.
Maybe this is only a personal opinion, but Japanese cuisine elevates seafood far higher than any other. If you have any doubts about this, look at their premier seafood market, Tsukiji. It is the largest fish market in the world, but that’s not the only reason for its fame. All the trawlers that supply to this wonder-world have blast freezing facilities on board, so after seafood is caught, they are frozen in a matter of seconds to minus 44 degrees Celsius. Every chef of note in Tokyo shops at Tsukiji, whose rush hour is at an unearthly 4 am to 6 am.
Not only do the Japanese treat their seafood with reverence, they also have the capacity to pay exorbitant prices for their favourites, which is why shopping at Tsukiji is a guarantee of excellence.
Japanese seafood cookery contains many stunning dishes. Sushi and sashimi are the best known and with good reason: it is the best testimony of how fresh your seafood is if you can serve it raw, with no other accompaniment but a drop of soy and a whisper of wasabi. You cannot serve sushi and sashimi unless you have the freshest of seafood, and in an inland city, being able to organize seafood that is fresh enough to eat raw is itself no mean feat. However, within the category, sea urchin is rare enough to be prized, fresh abalone is ruinously expensive because of the rarity of getting it raw, but the most expensive of all is tuna. Yellowfin is prized above bluefin, and the belly is prized above other cuts. Trust the Japanese to make the distinction between one part of the belly and the other: chu toro is the less fatty part, and though it is expensive enough, its thunder is stolen by o toro, the fattiest part of tuna belly. Expect to pay Rs 12,000 for a kg of o toro, but the good news is that you don’t need a whole kilo for a few pieces of sashimi.
Chawanmushi is another instance of how skillfully the Japanese cook their seafood. A delicate egg custard is steamed with chunks of fish, crab sticks and shiitake mushrooms suspended in it. Tempura is yet another clever trick where a paper-thin rice flour batter coats fresh seafood and is deep-fried. The batter is only for the textural contrast: no tempura maker would use yesterday’s fish, hoping that deep-frying it would mask its staleness. Grilling is yet another way of precision-cooking seafood: fatty fish like salmon or cod are chosen, their skin kept intact and grilled over charcoal. A few nano-seconds here or there make a huge difference, because it has to be taken off the fire as soon as the flesh is cooked through, yet the moisture has to remain intact, while the skin has to become crisp.
And when a Japanese person says that he is dying for fugu, he means it literally. Fugu or blow fish is eaten nowhere else in the world but Japan, where it commands a huge price. It has to be killed and cut by a licenced fishmonger because of the sac of deadly poison it has in its liver. So high is the cachet of this fish that no part is wasted. The fins are roasted lightly and added to bottles of sake which, over time, gets the whiff of fugu; the skin is blanched and served as an accompaniment to the flesh that is sliced thinly and eaten as sushi or sashimi.
Japanese and Korean cuisines are the only ones to make use of jellyfish, which they use to great effect in salads with a great texture, but not much in the way of flavour, which comes from the accompanying mustard.
When we talk about premium seafood in Chinese cookery, our ambit is limited to the cuisine of Guangdong, the southernmost province, and neighbouring Hong Kong. The Forum Restaurant, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong sells nothing but abalone: you choose the piece you can afford and pay for it. Unlike Japan where fresh abalone is prized above the dried variety, Chinese food makes use of dried and even tinned abalone, the latter costing around Rs 2,500 for 600 grams. Tinned and dried abalone – as indeed every other dried seafood which is highly prized in South China – has to be reconstituted and added as a background flavour to a dish.
Streets like Des Voeux Road, dealing in dried seafood in Hong Kong can be smelled from a mile away, but the array of octopus, shark fillet, shrimp, scallops, squid, sea cucumber, eel and many other creatures and their roe are highly prized for their intense flavour and every chef makes XO sauce from a secret mix of a few of these ingredients.
Shark’s fin is openly, indeed proudly, sold in shops around Hong Kong, where it is believed to have anti-cancer properties (the shark is the only creature in nature that is free of cancer). Prices vary depending on whether you buy a whole fin or a part of one, and whether the colour of the fin is plain white or tinged with red. The more red it is, the higher the price. Prices for a whole red fin, red in colour, often touch Rs 5 lac, and they’re snapped up immediately.
Unlike dried seafood, tinned abalone and shark’s fin do not have a flavour of their own, but are prized for their texture. In the case of abalone, it is simmered in a superior stock for days together to tenderize it as well as to infuse it with the flavour of the stock. Shark’s fin too, has to be simmered so that its characteristic texture – crunchy like gristle – is accentuated.
Apart from South China, the only part where anything approaching premium seafood is served, is in Shanghai’s West Lake. Many towns and cities all over the Middle Kingdom have lakes near them called West Lake, but come September and Shanghai’s West Lake becomes a mecca for gourmets from all over the country. Between September to November is the season for hairy crab, but it has to be the female of the species, because this is the time when the crabs are about to spawn. Armed with bottles of Mao Tai, the yellow wine that is believed to generate heat (crabs, according to Chinese medicine, produce cold), Shanghai’s cognoscenti spend hours every day on the lake in small boats – the traditional way to enjoy hairy crab.
With thousands of species of fish in the waters, how does one even begin to choose the most prestigious ones? John Dory has a biblical connection. Saint Peter is said to have caught and then released this fish. Indeed, a visible distinguishing mark on its back is similar to a thumb-print. Myths apart, this fish has firm, succulent white flesh, highly prized by gourmets.
Turbot is one of the bottom feeding species of seawater fish that has always been prized for the creaminess of its flesh. It is a flat fish, as opposed to a round fish (the former has both eyes on the same side of its body; the latter has one eye on each side). Dover sole is perhaps the most highly prized of all fish
First things first. All fish – indeed most species of seafood – produce eggs, called roe. It is only the sturgeon whose roe can be called caviar. Indeed, the gods have been kind indeed to the nations that encircle the Caspian Sea, the only habitat of the sturgeon. For, while the fish was plentiful in the waters of the sea, whole nations became rich on caviar, the ultimate in luxe. More recently, as fish stocks have become seriously depleted, oil reserves have been found in the Caspian. It is good news for the nations who will share the booty, but not so good news for caviar lovers, because the eco-system will almost certainly become degraded.
There are four kinds of sturgeon: sevruga, osetr, beluga and sterlet. The connection of the first three with types of caviar are well known, the most premium being beluga because of the size of the individual eggs. Other roe that is available in tins, more or less all over the world, include salmon roe and trout roe, though it must be stressed that they entirely lack the cachet of caviar. Two other types of roe deserve a mention: lumpfish roe is quite often passed off as caviar because of the similar colour and appearance and flying fish roe with its beady texture is familiar to anyone who eats sushi: uramaki and other forms of sushi frequently feature it as a textural contrast.
Crustaceans are the varieties of seafood where the skeleton is outside and the meat inside. Across all species, the colder the waters they are found in, the tastier their meat will be, the female of the species having sweeter meat. Alaskan hairy crabs, as their name suggests, come from the icy waters around Alaska. They are well-known for their huge claws containing large amounts of meat. Restaurateurs around the world find this a value proposition, because crab claws are easy to serve and neater to eat than crab shells. Blue Crabs from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts have delicious white meat, while soft-shell crabs are those crabs that have just shed one hard shell and are in the process of developing another. All species of crabs are, at some points in their lives, soft-shelled. Again, a restaurateur’s delight, because they are non-messy to eat: quite an important consideration in an up-market operation.
Lobsters are of two major varieties: the American (and Canadian) variety and the European variety. Connoisseurs consider the latter to have a finer, more nutty and sweeter flavour than the American variant. The ultimate in luxury seafood, the best lobsters come from cold waters. So, when is a lobster not a lobster? If it does not have claws, it cannot be called a lobster. The problem is nomenclature, rather than a desire to cheat the customer, because these clawless crustaceans are variously known as spiny lobsters, rock lobsters, langoustes, crayfish and crawfish.
As if that was not enough, there are also langoustines, Dublin Bay prawns and scampi. Confusingly, they are related to lobsters though they look like prawns.
Prawns and shrimp are the most popular of all crustaceans of the seas. Contrary to popular belief, size doesn’t necessarily matter. What does matter is whether they are freshwater or seawater, and whether they have been farmed or are wild. Tiger prawns, king prawns or jumbo prawns – call them what you will, they are a warm water variety and used extensively in Indian and South Asian cuisines.
The best of the rest
Oysters are one of life’s luxuries, but it does matter where they come from. Belon, the French variety, the English Whitstable, Colchester and Helford and the Belgian Ostendes are considered the ones with the most flavour. No oyster aficionado would spoil an oyster by cooking it – you would lose the flavour of the sea that way. And its legendary powers as an aphrodisiac help its reputation as a premium food.
Scallops start out life in a pretty fluted shell. There are over three hundred varieties of scallops, the cold water ones being the ones with the finest flavor.