But all fish are not created equal. This and more fish wisdom has been passed on over a period of time, through the ages; each passing generation discovers new things about marine life, with the oceans, seas, rivers and lakes opening up a little more to reveal further secrets.
The oceans and seas still hide a lot of marine secrets in their depth
Seafood has been part of human diets since the beginning of time; shellfish like mussels has been suggested as being eaten since prehistoric times. The discovery of fire, and subsequently, the start of cooking, incontrovertibly turned around the preparation and consumption of food. Cooking has come a long way since then, and so have culinary science, techniques, and equipment. While the rudiments of cooking have been perfected and passed down the genealogical ladder, we still discover ‘ground-breaking’ tricks that keep things exciting. The viral veneration of water that beans and other legumes are cooked in is a recent example. Christened ‘aquafaba’, the cooking liquid has been found to be a great substitute for eggs in classic dishes like meringue that, so far, have been formidable to create egg-free.
Salt of the Earth
Whole fish roasted in a salt crust is a popular dish
While there are arguments that propose cooking as the element that literally made us human, nobody can question the mammoth form and stature that preparing food has taken, which has long trespassed the boundaries of the primary goal of providing energy and nourishment. As an integral part of this, cooking seafood has evolved into a craft that, like most of cooking, has evolved from methods honed over millennia. In ancient times, before man could devise proper equipment to cook, fish was enveloped in wet clay to be roasted in an open fire; the now-hard outer shell of clay would be cracked open to reveal cooked fish. This may sound similar to the present-day salt crusting technique that is now wildly popular with gastronomes, which involves building a thick crust of moist salt around a whole fish that is roasted or baked. At the time of serving, the crust is broken and the hard layer of salt completely removed for the juicy morsels of fish to be eaten.
What probably started with roasting on open fires with no added seasoning or fat is now a completely different scenario, that changes ever so regularly, courtesy that much-discussed word—innovation. With the passage of time, several cooking styles have emerged as the product of synthesizing various methods that together form the underpinnings of a prepared dish. These are the outcome of a bunch of elements that range from climate to availability of ingredients, and local customs and beliefs. Many of these cooking techniques are common across various cuisines globally, but this may not be very apparent. So, for a Mangalorean mackerel curry, you marinate the fish, roast the ingredients for the ‘masala’ paste, sauté the aromatics and the masala, brown them, and then add the fish to stew. Most fried fish recipes originating in different parts of the world call for some form of marination, while roasting, browning and stewing are equally familiar globally.
Here and Beyond
Cooking seafood has gone beyond the regular repertoire of traditional regional recipes, that your mom inherited from both your grandmothers, aunts, or borrowed from the community cookbook, family friends etc. A Bengali may have grown up eating rohu (carp) in a kalia or doi maach, but that wouldn’t stop him/her from making a do pyaza with it. More connoisseurs in search of newer food experiences are reaching out for traditionally fish-centric Pathare Prabhu or CKP cuisines to enjoy fish in all forms. While a Kerala-style prawn fry has always been popular, Cajun-style shrimp is also finding a larger audience. With great exposure comes greater hunger for adventure. A dish of octopus may probably have had raised excitement among few people familiar with molluscs ten years ago, but enough has changed since then. More people now have seen or read about experiences with diverse seafood and wish to try them first-hand.
Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Sound of the Sea’ is one of the best examples of molecular gastronomy, and has been called “a journey, a whole experience”
As we hear about more people travelling across the globe in search of unusual experiences, an even greater number is getting inspired to plan their own adventure. This is being extended to the food scene too; we’re stoked to eat our way through our travels, sampling local delicacies that may be miles apart from the regular food we are used to. Even everyday menus seem different today; we get inspired to recreate our favourite foods that owe their origins to other regions, or even other countries. We are more open to experimenting with exotic ingredients that we can source as easily as walking into the neighbourhood supermarket. No dish is too crazy or weird—from paella-inspired pizza to Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Sound of the Sea’, which resembles the seashore, complete with oysters and clams, edible sand and foam, and an iPod that plays the sound of crashing waves and seagulls, for a complete experience involving the five senses. If the flavours work, then that’s all that matters.
Variety is the Spice
In the 19th century, lobsters were preserved in brine-soaked rags and sand
So, more people who had never eaten fish growing up are now keen to sample different varieties. Meet Ashmant Tiwari, a business analyst with a bank: “Seafood was never a part of our family menus; we are a vegetarian family. Living with Bengali roommates led to my jaunts to the local fish market, where I learnt the difference between saltwater and freshwater varieties. Being around traditional fish eaters was also the reason I took to eating seafood, and have since made it a regular feature in my meals. I love how easy it is to put a fish dish together, that’s tasty and nutritious. Since I work out a lot, I look to fish for fulfilling my protein requirements, since it is more natural, less processed than other meats.” Variety, of course, adds to the joy of choosing—“I think lobster is my favourite, among crabs, prawns, fish steaks etc. It’s so tasty.”
Speaking of lobster, this is how shellfish was enjoyed in Britain in the days of yore, according to Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century: “In Victorian times…Lobster, crabs, shrimps and prawns could be dressed in many ways, but the commonest was to boil them to eat cold. After being simmered in a brine of water and Bay salt in a fish kettle, lobsters could either be eaten immediately, or kept as long as a quarter of a year, wrapped in brine-soaked rags and buried deep in sand.”
Thankfully, humankind has seen a lot of progress since then, so we don’t have to rely on lobster preserved in rags and buried in sand.
Next week: How we can and are asking for more
About the Author An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.