Monthly Specials: Who Moved My Fish?

Red snapper, Pescafresh, Mumbai

Red snapper. Photo courtesy Pescafresh.

Over the last few months, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of fish in the sea – specifically, the sea off India’s coast. In December last year, I went to lunch at The Bombay Canteen and had their beautifully-constructed red snapper sol kadhi ceviche. This dish was first served as part of the pop-up brunch at which chef Floyd Cardoz showcased a selection of dishes from his New York restaurant Paowalla. The ceviche was such a hit that it was added to The Bombay Canteen’s menu. Translucent, delicately pink, raw fish slices came arranged in whorls, like a large flower bud, in the centre of a pool of blush kadhi speckled with black kavuni rice and juliennes of radish. Since it opened two years ago, The Bombay Canteen’s policy has been to not import any of its products, and instead, offer local, seasonal and regional Indian produce. The red snapper used for the ceviche was an Indian variety. Until recently, I had no idea that sashimi-quality red snapper was available here.

I should have known better. A little over a year ago, a friend had told me that fish varieties we typically considered imported or exotic were in fact available off the coast of India. He spoke about a trip to the backwaters of Kerala, where he found marlin and types of swordfish. Sangram Sawant, owner of retail seafood supply company Pescafresh, told me that over 80, if not 90, per cent of the seafood we eat in in Mumbai is local. “In fact, we eat very little imported fish,” said Sawant. The list goes beyond local favourites like pomfret, surmai, rawas, ghol and bombil. Much of the red snapper, soft-shell crab (farmed off the coast of Alibaug), halibut, yellowfin tuna, grouper and green mussels found on our menus is Indian. The lesser-known local varieties such as the Malabar trevally, the goatfish and the leather skin fish, merely don’t have, to use a marketing term, share of voice.

Sawant sells oysters that his well-travelled customers are willing to eat raw. Some people may already know this, but I was pretty surprised. As I dug around more, I found that we also have sea urchin, eel and sea cucumber varieties (one of which fishermen have been collecting off the coast of Tamil Nadu for over a thousand years) and our very own oyster species named after the city of Madras. Among the other international-sounding but actually native seafood found in Indian waters are stingray, a variety of mackerel (including the Indo-Pacific king mackerel also known as surmai) and a range of croakers. Then there are the non-native varieties that are being farmed in India such as basa, which is originally from the Mekong region, tilapia from the Nile and Vannamei prawn from the east Pacific Ocean and Hawaii.

We also have a number of good, better-priced substitutes for rawas, surmai and pomfret. Croaker might not feature on restaurant menus but according to Junaid Daruwalla, founder of seafood supply company Off The Hook, what several restaurants serve as rawas – a threadfin under threat of overfishing – is in fact a variety of croaker, a different species of firm, white-fleshed fish. It’s cheaper and makes excellent high-protein, low-fat food. Daruwalla says that most low-priced rawas dishes are probably croaker. The restaurants aren’t necessarily conning us; sometimes even chefs don’t know better. Gresham Fernandes, head chef at Impresario, said that “once you skin and filet white-fleshed fish like red snapper, red emperor, garoupa (also known as reef cod), it’s very hard to tell them apart.”

The Bombay Canteen

The sol kadhi ceviche at The Bombay Canteen.

Our waters have lots more edible seafood than we anticipate, both wild caught and farmed. Across India’s coasts and water bodies, we can find all of these and more. However, most of this isn’t served at restaurants or prepared at home. There are several reasons why most of us in Mumbai haven’t tasted even a fourth of these: we don’t know about them; restaurants want to serve what’s familiar or recognisable; we have reservations about buying them for home use; some are a bit more expensive; and much of it, in fact, is exported. As a result, inoffensive-but bland-basa continues to have a stranglehold over restaurant menus, showing up even at institutions like Gajalee, which has a basa koshimbir, and Jai Hind Lunch Home at which it’s used for pulimunchi instead of the traditional bangda.

Take, as a case study, blue coloured giant freshwater prawns, which are more commonly known as scampi (not to be confused with the Norwegian lobsters, which is also known as scampi). They’re mostly found in West Bengal, Orissa and Kerala. Their claws grow up to a foot in length. “Their weight can go up to half a kilo; sometimes, they’re bigger than lobsters,” said Daruwalla. “They’re fatty, comparable to lobsters, and more expensive than prawns. We export almost all of our scampi because no one asks for it in India.” In Bengal, scampi are called galda chingri and used in traditional preparations such as malai curry and shorshe chingri. Like most freshwater or river crustaceans, scampi has a sweeter, stronger flavour than saltwater or sea prawn. In Mumbai, the restaurants Masque, serve Off The Hook’s scampi on their menus.

Snapper, halibut and mahi mahi are also largely exported. “To see a whole mahi mahi in the market is quite rare,” said Daruwalla. Which is a shame. “It is eaten in restaurants off the coast of Florida with great relish, but you don’t see much of it in restaurants in Mumbai,” said Sawant. “In most cases, fishermen don’t take care of it [properly]; there is no time and temperature control.” Pesca Fresh sells wild caught mahi mahi, a fish with delicate, flaking sweet flesh, for Rs400 to Rs500 per kilo. In Florida, it sells for up to USD 26 a kilo. At least one fishery in Tamil Nadu exports it along with red snapper, reef cod and pick handle barracuda, known locally as tamoshi, gobro, and tonki respectively in Hindi. In Marathi, red snapper is tambusa, chembali or rajarani. But you’re unlikely to hear of anybody bringing home a nice filet to sear or steam. No one in the fish-eating Sindhi side of my family has heard of these names.

Chances are, these fish are not the exact same species that we might find on menus abroad, but are close-enough cousins in taste and texture. For example, in India, John snapper, Russell snapper and a tomato red snapper pass for the native Atlantic snapper. Sawant told me that snapper varieties are caught wild from Gujarat to Kerala and from Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, and that a lot of people sell white snapper as red snapper. Still, there are many advantages of buying local fish: there’s a larger variety available, it’s fresher (sometimes never even frozen) and relatively less expensive.

Thomas Zacharias, executive chef at The Bombay Canteen, frequently visit Sassoon Dock to see what he might find. He admits that he’s “moved over from the dark side” after serving imported varieties of fish that was easily available in local markets at his previous gig at the Olive Bar and Kitchen. “I did a 180 degree turn”, he says. “One trip to the docks will blow your mind.” Thus far, The Bombay Canteen, which has an open-ended catch-of-the-day dish to celebrate what might just show up, has served Indian red snapper, octopus, cuttlefish and stingray (not to be confused with the smaller, smellier skate).

With regard to the red snapper ceviche, Zacharias said that it’s not so much the type of fish as the freshness that determines if it can be eaten raw. Each variety evokes its own set of reservations. We get large tuna off our coast, but because they’re big fish, we justifiably worry about the pollution they accumulate in their bodies. Snapper at Rs350 a kilo for a whole fish yields only about 35 percent edible flesh. Filleted basa, available for Rs220 a kilo, is considered a much safer bet. I, for one, have resolved to find out more about one locally caught or farmed species every week, from visits to the markets and from all these suppliers.

Red snapper
Steamed it or use the steak in a curry. Indian red snapper is so good, it’s better than the stuff you find in Whole Foods in the US.

Indian halibut
It makes a very good seared filet.

Mahi mahi
This has grainy and meaty flesh, so it can be pan-fried, baked in the oven, or even used to make tikkas.

Use it as you would surmai; it’s a much cheaper alternative.

Sea bass
This is essentially betki or barramundi; have it as an alternative to rawas.

Himalayan trout
Like salmon, it has a high oil content, and a muscular meaty body, and naturally coral-coloured flesh. It’s a very good salmon substitute.

Edible uni and sea cucumbers
Look for the ones from the Andamans and Rameswaram; they have the best quality.

These deep sea lobsters are found in south India and almost [all of them are] exported. Ask your vendor to source some for you.

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  • Subham Kar Chaudhuri

    Wow . Great piece to fit all the details in.Is anyone working on sustainable fishing practices being taught in or around Mumbai ?

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