Seafood has really taken off in Indian restaurants as Humayun Hussain finds out

Posted on Analysis May 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
Seafood has really taken off in Indian restaurants as Humayun Hussain finds out

All at Sea, Seafood has really taken off in Indian restaurants as Humayun Hussain finds out.

Time was that when it came to seafood Indian restaurants could muster no more than a few prawn dishes and the odd fish, like tilapia or hilsa on their menus. But much has changed since then and that’s only in the past five to ten years.

It’s all part of the modernisation process which the Indian restaurant sector has embraced, coupled with the fact that talented and imaginative chefs have come to realise the wide variety of fresh fish and shellfish that are available in the UK. So now we see all kinds of seafood dishes appearing on our Indian restaurant menus, ranging from salmon through to monkfish, sea bass, turbot, halibut, snapper, bream and hake, along with all kinds of shellfish – king prawns, lobster, crab and mussels.

Menus are all the better for it, while the public is given added impetus to visit Indian restaurants where seafood is now part and parcel of everyday cooking.

“Seafood did not feature prominently on Indian restaurants menus in the past,” says Hari Nagaraj, head chef of the Cinnamon Club, “partially because most restaurants served north Indian based menus but also because seafood has always been expensive - both to buy and to sell. Historically Indian restaurants have always been price sensitive and price conscious and therefore shy away both from buying expensive ingredients and selling expensive dishes. Seafood can be quite expensive if it does not sell when it’s at its prime and requires a great deal of attention and care to do it right.

With an enhanced awareness of Indian food and the resulting demand, more and more restaurants feel confident about putting seafood on the menu. With chefs adapting to new cooking techniques and seafood being the healthier option it’s becoming more prominent. Moreover you can get the freshest of seasonal seafood in UK, catering to customer demand is the answer.”

Take Aagrah, the renowned restaurant chain in the north-east. It has a fish display in both the Garforth and the Sheffield branches.

“We decided to have fish counters in two of our restaurants,” says Mohammed Aslam, Aagrah’s Managing Director, “because nobody was doing such a thing and it has proved to be an enormous success. We keep fillets of fish such as salmon, monkfish, tilapia, sea bass, halibut, king prawns and lobster tail on the counter. The customer chooses which fish he wants and the method he wants it cooked in, which could be anything from grilled or baked, along with the preferred choice of marination. The chef then cooks it and it’s then served plated as a complete meal with grilled vegetables and saffron rice.” 

Khalid Khan of Khan Seafood, which supplies to Indian restaurants, notes that not only have Indian restaurants discovered more in the way of seafood items, there has also been a knock-on effect whereby if one restaurant wants a particular type of fish or shellfish, other restaurants will follow.

“If I’ve sold crab to a few restaurants for instance,” states Khan, “suddenly a lot of other establishments will also start buying it, which is why crab meat is very popular these days. Lobster is also selling very well.”

Chef-patron Cyrus Todiwala of Café Spice Namaste is cautious though and says that copycat tactics between chefs won’t always work in their favour as not everyone can cook seafood in the way it needs to.

“Not everyone is trained or familiar with every kind of fish,” he says, “and you have to be very careful in your cooking because fish is a very delicate meat. Take monkfish for instance. It reacts differently to different fires and temperature so not all chefs can prepare it adequately. It takes a certain amount of learning.

My advice would be for chefs to get as much advice as possible on how to cook particular fish and shellfish, and also to experiment. When I have my fresh seafood delivery, I will firstly check the quality of it and reject anything outright if it doesn’t meet my standards. But what I also do is to bear in mind the skills of my kitchen team at preparing seafood. If they don’t feel confident about being able to cook a certain type of fish properly, I don’t buy it. I’d rather not take the risk and ruin my reputation. The last thing any chef needs is to overcook a fish or mar the flavour with inadequate spicing.”  

Of course, one mustn’t forget that the Indian subcontinent has an abundance of fish. India alone has a coastline which extends to over 4,000 miles with the country’s west coast, from Kerala up to Mumbai harbouring not just the sea, but rivers, lakes and stream, all being synonymous for their seafood dishes. 

“Probably the biggest difference, in what is available in the subcontinent and here,” adds Nagaraj, “is that there is a much higher proportion of fresh water fish used in India compared to the West. In the UK there is an abundance of seawater fish and more varieties of farmed fish available. In India, availability of seawater fish is limited to coastal areas due to poor logistics combined with a lack of infrastructure and distribution facilities. However, a vast network of rivers ensure that fresh water produce is available in most other regions making it a significant part of the country’s diet.

Bonier and oily fresh water fish such as king fish, hilsa, rohu, katla, sear, Bombay duck, and pomfret can be found in India, but are not widely available in the UK. Some may be found frozen in specialist Asian stores. Fish that can be found in both the UK and India include mackerel, bream, bass and sardines, tuna and swordfish. Although most of the king prawns consumed in the UK come from the eastern quarter of the world, here in UK you can also find freshest of lobster, best of mussels, scallops and salmon, which are difficult to come by in India. Seafood is basically limited to warm water varieties.”

Traditionally, in Indian cooking freshwater fish, that are slightly more dense and oily, are commonly used to make curry. It is also quite common to use fish on the bone in Indian food.

“I think it’s important that seafood that is featured on menus,” adds Todiwala, “be as fresh as possible, which is why I will not just have fish and shellfish on my a la carte, but also my specials. In the UK, we are very lucky to get seafood from all corners of the world though of course UK shores produce a fair amount of excellent fare and I feel strongly that as restaurateurs, we support our fishing industry here.”

Some of the seafood dishes featured on the Café Spice Namaste menu include Kerala nyannd masala (a crab starter of flaked Cornish white crab meat, tempered with black mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves green chilli and ginger, finished with freshly grated coconut and diced tomato, served on a base of light coconut curry sauce) along with plaice cafreal with garlic pulao and curry (whole small plaice marinated in a fresh green masala with pureed coriander, ginger, green chilli, mint and garlic with lots of lime juice, skewered and chargrilled and served with garlic and pimento pulao and light green curry sauce).

“We have used almost over 70 different varieties of fish and seafood in our restaurant,” says Nagaraj, “and 40% of our menu offering comprises of seafood. They are especially popular when the weather is warm.”

Nagaraj points that oily and meaty fishes are the best for cooking in the tandoor.

“It is these qualities that keep the fish moist,” he adds, “even when they are exposed to the fierce heat of the tandoor. Fish like salmon, swordfish, halibut, grouper and monkfish cook well in the tandoor and are best in sauce based dishes too.

Some of the seafood dishes which have been featured on the Cinnamon Club menu include spice crusted black bream with stir fried vegetables, coconut ginger sauce, wild African prawns baked with ‘kasundi’ mustard and served with lemon rice and mackerel fillet smoked with pepper and cumin and served with fennel raita.

Offering advice to chefs oh how to treat and cook seafood, Nagaraj says: “It’s very important to treat a piece of fish with the utmost respect or you could end up with a dry or disintegrated piece of fish. Fish like bream, bass, brill, mackerel, cod and hake are all very basic and are best when grilled. Scallops are best served seared with lobsters and prawns tasting great grilled or stir fried. Mussels are best when steamed. Halibut and snapper are best served poached, roasted or grilled.

You can use any type of fish or shellfish, but the cooking method changes. I have experimented with many varieties with success, but I would say conger eel, whelks and cockles were a tougher bet.”

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