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Seafood intoxication

A friend, on his travels, was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Rio de Janeiro. On his return, he had us turning green listening to his descriptions of the energy and magic of the city, of Copacabana Beach, and of course, the cuisine. The king crabs, the lobsters, the octopus, the squid, the tuna…

The next day he had to go to the doctor. “Seafood intoxication” was the diagnosis. A simple case of too much pleasure followed by pain. Many years later, I went through almost the same experience, a few thousand miles further north. It was in Boston, in the month of September, which I was told is a good time of year for lobsters and such.

The day, rather early afternoon, began with the familiar feeling of going marketing. Fresh vegetables set up in stalls, fresh fish and many other goodies. Not very different from Gariahat or Park Circus or any of our other municipal markets, except that these stalls were set up in the open. One stall was loaded with prize tiger (bagda) prawns. Obviously not from local waters, I asked the man where they came from. “Thailand. Mebbe India. Not sure. I don’t import ’em. I just sell ’em.”

First stop, a man selling oysters from his bucket set up on the street. Just like phuchka or jhal muri, scant attention paid to hygiene, just open the shell, dunk some flaming red sauce in, scoop out the oyster flesh and have it all in a single mouthful, chewing well, letting the moist, raw flesh of the oyster mingle with the potent, delicious sauce before swallowing down a little at a time, and losing count of how many are consumed.

Over the next few hours, much wandering, a bit of shopping, a substantial Seafood Pizza at an Italian restaurant, generously topped with succulent shrimps, crabmeat, squid and tuna and the last stop before going home was another restaurant where you choose your lobster from an aquarium. It is cooked for you and brought to the table with weapons to crack open claws and shell and scoop out the flesh, bread rolls and a bowl with a healthy dollop of garlic butter…

Thus far it had been sheer pleasure. The pain began about 15 minutes after stepping out on to the street!

If you want seafood intoxication Oriental style, there is a festival on at Mainland China on Gurusaday Road. It’s the only establishment outside of the five-star hotel umbrella to invite chefs all the way from China, and also to send their own chefs to China for sometimes as long as six months. It has yet again come up with an authentic, compact menu with a fine balance of robust and delicate dishes and an eye for a visually pleasing blend of colours and textures as well.

The festival is being overseen by Chef Ye Zhong from Chengdu, capital of China’s Sichuan province, and Chef Bai Yan Zhou, who is from Beijing. Both have years of experience and have been with some of China’s leading hotels. Chef Zhong is a specialist in dim sum and Chef Zhou’s forte is Cantonese and Sichuanese seafood.

There are three items listed under starters — two of them are dim sum — one steamed (Lobster and Mushroom Dumpling) and one pan-fried (Lobster Dumplings with Onion and Celery). I had the latter, the stuffing wrapped with a delicately thin flour envelope, crescent shaped, edges crisp and tasty, dipped in a chilli-coriander-soya combination.

Another starter was Dry Wok Spicy Prawns. This can serve as a main course, and is actually listed as one, but works excellently as a starter. Star anise and cinnamon give this an unusual character, and the prawns are served in a thick, dry coating by cooking chopped ginger and garlic, chilli paste, dry red chilli and chopped salted chilli in stock and dark soya sauce thickened with cornflour. Red bell peppers are also used and the dish is finished with sesame oil.

There are two soups; I had the Spicy Lemon Grass Flavoured Lobster Broth — a full-bodied, delicious item of lobster meat, assorted mushrooms, fresh red chillies and lemon grass cooked in stock and finished with egg white. Visually pleasing as well for its delicate pale colour with the mushrooms and seasoning, this was in nice contrast to the robust Spicy Barbecued Pomfret with Hot Ginger Soya Dip. A whole pomfret (they use the big, dark grey pomfret with the scales and thick skin, known locally as halua) is marinated in a combination of light soya, Shaoxing wine, hoisin sauce, five-spice powder and salt, for at least half an hour. It is then brushed with oil and singed on a very hot griddle on both sides, scattered over with cumin and chilli flakes and garnished with spring onions. The thick skin responds well to this cooking method and served with the ginger soya dip, is a fine dish.

Green Chilli and Ginger Crabs make for a good main course item as well — delicate, in a white sauce Cantonese style, to balance the pomfret. Other items to look out for are Stir-fried Squid, Cold Beer Shrimps and Soft Shell Crabs. There are several bekti items as well.

Except for two lobster items, the prices of the main courses average at about Rs 275, which is reasonable. And with a glass of wine on the house with any dish you order, it is an offer you cannot refuse.

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