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Rude food | Fishy encounters

Even as Britain celebrates 150 years of fish and chips this week, its Indian version rarely manages to get the melt-in-your-mouth flavour of the real thing. Vir Sanghvi tells us more.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2010 19:59 IST
Vir Sanghvi

FishMost of us don't really know fish and chips. Oh yes, we are familiar with the concept from years of reading British books and seeing movies in which this very English street food dish features. But when it comes to actually eating it, we have rarely had the real thing.

When I was growing up in Bombay, fish and chips at most restaurants comprised two flat fillets of pomfret, bread-crumbed and shallow-fried. Though we have moved on since those days, at most restaurants, the conception of fish and chips remains more or less the same, flat fish fillets in bread crumbs.

Consequently, the Indian version of fish and chips is much preferred by people who don't like fish. Chefs choose the blandest fish they can find and hope that anyone who orders the dish will regard it as a tastier chicken cutlet with a slightly softer inside.

Real fish and chips - at least, the way they make it in England - has very little to do with the version still favoured by many restaurants in India. For a start, you never ever use breadcrumbs. You always use a batter and a great deal of debate goes into the exact composition of this batter.

Secondly, you do not treat the fish as the least offensive fillet that you can find. You recognise that the point of this dish is the fish. So, you use something like cod, which is a delicate but tasty fish. The advantage of cod is that it is one of the world's laziest fish. Because it hates swimming around, it develops very little fibrous muscle and yields a soft, white flesh. Plus, it is a bit of a gourmet. Its preferred diet is lobster, prawn and scallops. Unlike most farmed fish, which are fed on disgusting industrial fishmeal, cod from the sea has a flavour that reflects the richness of its diet.

Once the cod has been cooked, you wait for the experience to unfold. Perfect fish and chips should have a crisp batter that encases the fish. When you cut through the batter, the fish should be steaming hot. It should have been cooked so that it resembles a snowy mountain of white fish, full of its natural moisture and endowed with the ability to melt in your mouth.

This kind of fish and chips is difficult for Indian restaurateurs to manage unless they put a lot of effort into it - and frankly, most of them couldn't be bothered.

One problem is the fish itself. In the old days, most of the fish and chips you got in England was made with cod. But now cod has been over-fished, stocks are low, and the fish is expensive. They are trying to adapt in England. Last year, just 60 per cent of the fish and chips served in England used cod. Second was haddock at 25 per cent.

In India, restaurateurs are reluctant to import cod only for fish and chips and in any case it would be too expensive for most coffee-shop menus and sadly, many chefs who pride themselves on using cod can't tell the difference between black cod or the true cod that is required for this dish. (Similarly, a disturbing large proportion of chefs have come to believe that Chilean seabass - which is not even a seabass but is a fancy name given to the toothfish - is the same as the real seabass.)

So, Indian fish and chips rarely approach the flakey, melt-in-your-mouth flavour of the real thing. This is not to say that you cannot make good fish and chips with Indian fish (in Calcutta, they use bhekti), only to say that an Indian version rarely tastes like the real thing. In England, such chefs as Tom Aikens have been experimenting with other varieties of fish including pollock, but Indian chefs have no interest in this quest.

The second problem is one of batter. There is no nice way of saying this so I'll come straight out: most Indian chefs neither understand batter nor deep-frying. This is why all the pakoras at Indian restaurants will be stodgy and will never approach the light flavours we get at home. Even when you let Indian chefs loose on Chinese food, they turn everything into an inedible pakora.

For fish and chips to work, the frying must be perfect. The temperature of the oil has to be just right. These days, fish and chip shops in the UK use fryers to simplify the process but if you don't have a fish fryer, you probably need a food thermometer to know when the oil is ready.

Then, there's the problem of the oil or fat used. Traditionally, the fish was fried in beef dripping. For obvious reasons (health, cholesterol, etc.) that practice fell out of favour in the West and for equally obvious reasons it is unlikely to ever catch on in India. A lot of effort now goes into finding the right oil to fry the fish in. Some shops use a combination of oils. And now, technology has entered the picture. Many flavour companies now offer a synthetic additive which mimics the flavour of beef dripping to give the fish a slightly meatier taste. (One such additive caused a controversy after the makers admitted that a few molecules of beef were used in the formulation. Various fast food chains were lambasted for not declaring this to vegetarians and Hindus.)

The batter itself is the subject of much discussion. Many chefs prefer what is called a beer batter because the carbon dioxide in the beer makes the batter lighter as it fries and the beer contributes the orange colour we associate with good fish and chips.

Given that no Indian chef I know of regards it as worth his while to get into all this complexity, are you surprised that fried fish in India, while very nice on its own, rarely bears any resemblance to the UK version?

And then, of course, there's the problem of the chips. In India, we rarely deal with the problem of choosing the right potato for each dish. We go to the subzi-wallah, he sells us potatoes, and we cook with them.

But it's not that simple. Most Indian potatoes have a high sugar content and are, therefore, unsuitable for frying. In some cases, the sugar is visible as the little blue patches you sometimes see on an Indian sautéed potato.

Chefs have found an easy way out. At nearly every restaurant in India, the French fries you will be served will not be Indian. They will have been imported, ready sliced and frozen (or refrigerated) from some European or American multinational. (The food conglomerates also do a nice line in hash browns, one reason why these potatoes now crop up on more and more menus.)

I have nothing against imported French fries. If fried properly, they can be excellent. But while thin French fries may go well with a hamburger, chips require potatoes that are thickly cut, ideally by hand. In the UK, good chefs will buy Maris piper potatoes and hand cut them. There is an advantage to these potatoes that may not be immediately obvious. Research has shown that a thick-cut chip absorbs much less oil than thin French fries so chunky chips are far healthier.

On the subject of health, it is worth noting that fish and chips is not an unhealthy option - despite all that frying - compared to most fast food. A supper of fish and chips has less fat than a prawn mayonnaise sandwich, half the fat of a doner


and a third of the fat of a Big Mac and fries. It also has fewer calories and fat than a Margarita pizza.

Compared to Indian food, fish and chips can be far, far healthier. It has one-third the fat (or even less) of butter chicken and rice or a naan. The potatoes also have more fibre than the average serving of brown rice.

So, if you have been avoiding fish and chips because you think that it is a sinful dish, relax. It's not exactly a salad but as a treat, it is a far, far healthier option than nearly everything else in its category. Besides, fish oil is good for your heart.

How do you get good fish and chips in India? Frankly, I don't know. The bastardised version of the dish appears on most coffee-shop menus but the real thing only turns up if an expatriate chef is in the kitchen.

If Indian chefs had imagination, they would take the dish and make it their own. They would add masala to the batter, would marinate the fish before frying or could try something similarly inventive. In Britain, a new generation of chefs has experimented with tempura batter and smaller pieces of fish.

Alas, I don't think that's going to happen. Even as Britain celebrates 150 years of fish and chips this week, we are rarely going to get the real thing in India.