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The fall of the lobster

The lobster has fallen out of favour these days. Until around two decades ago, it was treated as the king of fish. When chefs planned a fancy menu, they took care to include such dishes as...

india Updated: Jun 14, 2010 11:05 IST
Vir Sanghvi

LobsterThe lobster has fallen out of favour these days. Until around two decades ago, it was treated as the king of fish. When chefs planned a fancy menu, they took care to include such dishes as Lobster Thermidor or Lobster Newburg. When French chefs travelled around the world for cooking demonstrations, they made Lobster Americaine, which caused endless confusion because foreigners wondered why the French were showing off an American dish. (Actually, it is not American at all and there are many theories about the origins of the name).

In the Anglo-Saxon world, cold lobster was the ultimate picnic dish. To this day, the most overpriced sandwich in London is the Lobster Club Sandwich (“order when you book your table”) at the Sotheby’s Café in New Bond Street. And Chinese restaurants will still charge you the earth for their lobster dishes. (In Hong Kong they pride themselves on such creations as lobster with Gruyere cheese, using such idiotic names as the Dragon and the Cloud).

But most modern chefs have fallen out of love with the lobster. You’ll rarely see Thomas Keller or Joel Robuchon boasting about the invention of a new lobster dish. When lobster meat is used, it is only to showcase the sweetness of the flesh. The old luxury ingredients – foie gras, caviar, truffles etc. – still thrive but the lobster is no longer counted among them.

In India, we have always been ambivalent about the lobster. You’ll find lobster dishes in some of the fish cuisines of India (Kerala, Goa, Mangalore coastal etc.) but on closer examination, most will turn out to be prawn recipes adapted for lobster and they will all work just as well with prawns. (The Bengalis remain largely immune to the charms of the lobster, preferring fresh water prawns). At the fish restaurants that are all the rage in Bombay these days, they will come and show you giant live crabs, their feet still kicking helplessly and huge tiger prawns. But rarely will a restaurant show off its lobsters.

Nor do lobsters appear much on the menus of Western (or ‘Continental’) restaurants in India. Partly this is because chefs are reflecting the global move away from lobster dishes. But partly, it is also because many Indian chefs are no longer sure that the fish they are serving is real lobster.

The confusion is more or less global. Such terms as ‘crawfish’ and ‘crayfish’ are often used interchangeably with ‘lobster’ in Australia, South Africa and many other parts of the world.

The problem is that all chefs are taught at catering college or hotel school that the lobster is the large fish with claws that the French call homard and that Americans prize because it can grow to massive dimensions off the coast of Maine.

The ‘lobsters’ we get in the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal rarely grow to the size of lobsters in Maine or Brittany. Nor do they have the claws that are so important in many French homard recipes. So, chefs conclude, these must not be lobsters at all. Hence the use of the term ‘crayfish’.

In fact, this causes even more confusion. The real crayfish is actually a freshwater shellfish (unlike the lobster which is a sea fish) called ecrevisse in French which has a taste and flavour quite unlike the lobster. Crayfish can be big or they can be small. Some even get special names (the Australian ‘marron’ for instance). But they are certainly not lobsters.

This leads to a second kind of confusion. Some chefs call them ‘crawfish’, an almost entirely meaningless term that derives from the (American) Creole term for crayfish. When you are offered a crawfish gumbo in the American South, you are not getting any kind of lobster but freshwater crayfish.

So just what is the Indian lobster? The French would not be confused by its provenance. In France, they call the luxuriantly clawed lobster of the North Atlantic the homard. This lobster is found on the European coast and on the American side of the ocean where it usually grows to a large size. This is the lobster on which the classic recipes of French cuisine are based.

But the French are also familiar with the fish of the Mediterranean and it is in these temperate waters that you find another kind of lobster – one that has no claws and that is usually a little smaller than the North Atlantic homard. The French call this the langouste and use it in many of their classic lobster recipes and also create special (Provencal-style) recipes for it.

The langouste also turns up in the warmer waters of the Atlantic and can be caught as far north as Southern England. In Italy, Spain and many Mediterranean countries, it is the only lobster they know.

Moreover, because the langouste likes warm water, it can be found all over the world. It is the lobster of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Pacific and is found all over South America, Australia and the Middle East. On the American West Coast, they borrow a trick from the French and call it the langosta to distinguish it from the clawed lobster of the East Coast.

Despite the popularity of the langouste (or the spiny lobster as it is often called) all over the world, Indian chefs continue to be embarrassed about putting it on the menu, arguing that it is “only a crayfish and not a real lobster.” In the process, all of us lose out. The distinctive characteristic of the lobster, for me, has always been that it is a fish that is comfortable with its size. I am not a fan of the giant prawns that restaurants in India (and much of the Far East) like serving because they always seem to have no real taste. They remind me of normal-size prawns that have been zapped with some dangerous gamma ray till they mutate bizarrely and grow to a terrifying size. Given a choice, I will always take small prawns over big.

With the lobster, on the other hand, size is not necessarily a disadvantage. While baby lobsters (in the old days – the Eighties, that is – they used to sell them at Sassoon docks in Bombay) can be delicate and delicious, even the largest lobster can have a sweet and tasty flesh.

A bad chef will use the lobster in prawn recipes and thereby gain nothing from the substitution. But a good chef will stick to dishes that show up the sweet flesh of the lobster to best advantage. In classic French cooking, they use butter, cream, mornay sauce, veloute sauce or béchamel.

Only a brave man would eat Lobster Newburg (one cup of butter and two cups of cream) or Lobster Thermidor (butter, Parmesan, béchamel etc.) these days, but inventive chefs have created many lighter dishes for the lobster.

The British fish chef Rick Stein says, “I like to keep good things simple and the best way, to me, of eating lobster is to serve it simply boiled and split in half with potatoes and some melted butter.” But Stein does have lobster recipes of his own. I like his recipe for langouste with vanilla sauce because it brings out the sweetness of the lobster and is simple. You boil fish stock, vanilla and two tablespoons of vermouth till reduced. Add the reduction to a hollandaise sauce. Gently warm some sliced lobster meat. Arrange on a plate and serve with the vanilla hollandaise. Needless to say, the dish works nearly as well if you serve the lobster with plain hollandaise.

My sense of the lobster’s downfall is that it came about because poncy French chefs used it to show off their skills and smothered the lobster with every kind of dairy product known to man. In the process of tarting up the lobster, we forgot about preserving and enhancing its own unique taste.

The best luxury foods are those that need little or no cooking (caviar, truffles, foie gras etc.). But by inventing complicated and heavy dishes, French chefs robbed the lobster of its individuality.

So, forget the snobbery and the luxury associations. Forget also all that complicated stuff about what a real lobster is. Just buy whatever kind of lobster you get. Eat it for itself, either with just a little garlic mayonnaise or with hollandaise.

If you like the taste, then you can experiment with slightly more ambitious recipes. Vineet Bhatia does a nice salad with lobster, asparagus spears and a chilli dip. Japanese chefs know how to bring out the flavour of the fish and Masaharu Morimoto even does a Lobster Masala at his New York restaurant (he says it is inspired by his Indian experiences).

Whatever you do, never ever order Lobster Thermidor or Lobster Newburg or any of the other classic lobster dishes of French cuisine. The French have murdered the lobster. Now it is up to the rest of the world to resurrect it.