Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: A golden fried mystery
Do you like Golden Fried prawns? You know the dish, I mean. It consists of large prawns encased in a batter which, when the dish is made perfectly, should be crisp, shiny and just a little aerated.
Most Indians who like fish also like Golden Fried Prawns, and the dish can be a perfect accompaniment to a cold glass of beer (or dry champagne, if you want to get all fancy) and is a popular starter at Chinese restaurants all over India.
But who invented it? And, now that we are on the subject, who invented fried fish anyway? The usual answer is the Brits, whose national dish it has become. But no, it turns out fried fish is not a traditional English dish at all. Its popularity only dates back to the 20th century and the English got it from the Portuguese.
There is a slightly ironic story of Christian-Jewish enmity and collaboration here. The Portuguese Christians persecuted their Jews, many of whom sought refuge in England. While there, they introduced Brits to their fried fish. The dish was adopted by the English, ironically enough, for very Christian reasons. Because Christians were not allowed to eat meat during Lent, they ate fried fish instead: yes, fried fish served by Jews who had been persecuted by Christians.
The British had lots of fish (they are an island nation) so fish and chips slowly became popular, though, oddly enough, the Brits never really managed to export their version of the dish to the rest of the world. Fried fish, in the UK, is dipped in a wheat flour batter and then deep fried. In such former colonies as India, on the other hand, fried fish is bread crumbed and shallow fried. It may not sound like much but the two dishes are quite different. British fish and chips will have a hard batter covering that you will have to crack open and the fish inside will be steamingly, meltingly lovely. The Indian version, on the other hand, is a breaded cutlet. You could make a chicken cutlet or a keema cutlet in roughly the same way. In British-style fish and chips, the taste of the fish is crucial. In India, you might as well use paneer for all the difference it makes to the flavour.
In fact, when you think about it, Indians very rarely use a wheat batter for frying. Our most famous version of fried fish, the Amritsari fish fry, uses besan. I asked Manjit Gill, my guru on these matters, and Manjit said that when it came to deep frying, Indians were most comfortable with besan (what we use for pakoras) and he suspected that even the Amritsari fried fish is not an ancient dish but dates back to a period when British influence was already felt in Punjab. (As you probably know, the British planted corn in Punjab and laid the foundations for makki ki roti so the British-Punjabi jugalbandi predates Southall.)
In other parts of India where fish is sometimes battered, you need look no further than those ambassadors of fried fish, the Portuguese. According to the great Goan chef, Julia Carmen Desa, batter-frying in Goan cuisines usually owes something to the Portuguese who colonised Goa for centuries. But says, Julia, there is also a local fried fish tradition, though she is not sure whether it is ancient or consists of adaptations of the Portuguese style of cooking.
Julia’s mother, she says, used to coat fish with semolina (rava) with just a little rice flour added to give it a crispy edge. You find the same style all along the South West coast though admittedly, it is less popular at homes than it is at restaurants when it has become a standby of so-called coastal cuisine menus.
But it is always rava or rice flour, never maida. And while there is now a masala fish fry tradition all over India-including Bengal- it does not predate the colonial era.
Why not maida? It’s an important question because it takes us to the origins of tempura. We know that deep-frying was never part of the Japanese tradition and that tempura was introduced by foreigners. But which foreigners? Our old friends, the Portuguese, turn up in this story as well and claim to have introduced it. Except that tempura was not made with fish or even prawns at first. It was made with vegetables and meat and was like a Japanese bhajiya or pakora. The food historian, KT Achaya, liked to claim that the Portuguese, whose ships left from Goa, had Indian cooks who taught the Japanese how to make bhajiya.
His claim is strengthened by the fact that Portugal has nothing like tempura and the only explanation for this is that ‘the original dish has been lost’. On the other hand, tempura is made with a wheat batter, not besan (which was largely unknown in Japan) so does the use of wheat suggest a Portuguese origin?
It’s a mystery. Like the Golden Fried Prawns we began with. I first had the dish on the menu of the Golden Dragon, the Taj restaurant that changed the way that Chinese food was perceived in India. Much of the Golden Dragon’s Sichuan food, in those days, was sort-of-authentic so I assumed that Golden Fried Prawns was a common Sichuan starter.
Actually, it is not. I did not find the dish in Sichuan. And I can’t recall having come across it in Singapore or Hong Kong. Yes, everyone has some variation on fried shrimp, like a prawn fritter but the Golden Dragon dish is now easier to find in India than it is in the Far East.
I asked Arun Sundararaj, the gifted Executive Chef at the Delhi Taj how they made it at the House of Ming. They used a large prawn dipped in a batter of maida (around 70 per cent) and cornflour (30 per cent) with baking soda and a little egg . The prawn was deep fried in a slightly complicated way. The chef held the prawn by the tail end for a few seconds while dipping the rest of the prawn’s body into the hot oil. Only when the cooking process had begun to solidify the batter, did he let go and allow the prawn to float away. If he had just dumped it in, it would have sunk to the bottom and lost the crisp, golden sheen that is the point of the dish.
So who invented the Golden Fried Prawn? You can find various kinds of fried prawns in the West (Popcorn Shrimp, for example) and you find Prawn tempura in Japan.
But this version of the dish? My guess is that the original existed in some form somewhere in Hong Kong (where the Golden Dragon’s first chefs came from). But some clever Indian chef took our love for the pakora, tweaked the dish and created this classic of Indian Chinese cuisine.
(And no, the Portuguese have not claimed to have invented it – yet.)
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, April 4, 2021
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