GOURMET FILESIdeal sea food in Delhi? None still….
Back in the day, Dilliwalas had to travel as far as at least Bombay to eat seafood. There were fish and seafood shops, but seafood-specific restaurants were few: Sridharan’s in Gole Market, Babu Moshai etc. in Chitto Park — again freshwater.
Then came Fishermen’s Wharf, which unfortunately downed shutters before it got a chance; Swagath, which serves all manner of food, not necessarily from the sea; and Ploof! whose menu smartly included other food, but that too gave up the brave attempt in a few years and changed to a delicatessen.
In the meanwhile we’d all been to Mumbai’s Apurva, Mahesh Lunch Home, Trishna, Sindhu Durg, Ecellensea, Gajalee and many others, all memorable. And bemoaned our Capital Punishment: The lack of cheap fine dining, fresh seafood and coastal spices. Well, the sea was far away and the cold chain was suspect, so what could you do but hope for a trip to Mumbai soon. Then, recently, there was this buzz about Trishna opening here, in the shadow of the Qutub Minar, just as one enters Mehrauli and the enclave of Indian designer boutiques and fine restaurants like Azimuth and Olive.
Twice friends made plans to eat there and I resisted, successfully — without having been there, I was apprehensive. But last night I had to bow to democracy, confess to not having a real reason, and go, As Bunty said on the phone this morning when I reported on last night’s dinner, I coulda-toldya; sitting here in Nizamuddin, I coulda-toldya.
First, it was, after the trashy approach, very swish: Japanese pebble garden, frangipani tree, gazebos, “air-conditioning” and white table linen. Not like the original Mumbai branch, with its laminated table-tops and paper napkins, but even there they all have “family” sections with the same pretensions.
It was over 40°, so at first I thought the air-conditioner was having a difficult time, but I asked the maître de and he said that someone had switched off the unit inadvertently and he quickly fixed it. It was Saturday night, we were six, and only one other table was occupied. Later two more women came in. We ordered fried Koliwada prawns to start with, and Kim, the vegetarian among us, asked for a vegetable hot and sour soup. That immediately vindicated the vast menu. I had been telling myself to not be an inverted snob, to stop looking for simple, integrated menus, and here was proof of why Trishna had stretched itself to Chinese and Tandoori Paneer: After all, what is a vegetarian going to eat as a starter? Someone asked Kim how her soup was and she smiled inscrutably. I, not so well-bred, asked pointedly: “Hot water and vinegar?” She said, “Umm… with some sliced mushrooms.”
The prawns had been shrink-fried and were small, brown and crisp. The masala was standard, unremarkable. I had decided on my way there to eat fish we don’t get easily in Delhi. Crabs and lobsters are available for a price, pomfret is good but ho-hum, but rawas, bombil (Bombay duck) and ladyfish there is none. But even in Trishna, bombil and ladyfish there was none. I asked for my rawas to be shallow fried with a casing of rawa — to avoid confusion, I said “sooji”, “semolina”. No, they said, they didn’t do rawa-fried rawas or rawa-fried anything. But they recommended the Hyderabadi Rawas tikka enthusiastically. It came and was okay, like fish tikka made with any fresh fish, it could just as well have been sole. Coastal… I’m not so sure if they use tandoors in Malwadi or Koliwadi cooking.
I asked if they had any vegetables, so the waiter suggested matar-methi-malai. Yes, it was N.I (north Indian), and yes, they did have coastal vegetables, namely vegetable ghassi. Ghassi is a curry with specific flavours, but which were the vegetables they’d used in it? While the waiter pondered, I ventured cauliflower-potato-carrot and he nodded gratefully. There was no choice, so we had it. Thick brown gravy, which I suspect they cook by the cauldronful in the morning and feed to unsuspecting Northies all day. Not that our stomachs suffered, despite the fact that we also had the rawas ghassi. Same gravy, shredded fish. They had appams, but most of us had neer dosai, which were soft but a little bit too stretchy.
And we ordered dal “kolhapuri”, which could be identified as arhar, tuvar. To my mind, names like Kolhapuri mean nothing — it’s as illuminating as saying chicken “Punjabi” or roti “Uttar Pradeshi”. But the nomenclature would have been irrelevant had the food been good.
People who’ve been to the Mumbai Trishna rave about the Crab Butter Garlic, and religiously order it here. My own exposure to expensive seafood is limited, but I still have a view. Meat as sweet and delicate as crab should be left alone to speak for itself, without suffocating it in the thick, viscous purée of garlic and butter that has become so popular. Just boiled, with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lime is perfect; anything else is crass. But it sells — at many thousand rupees — so why shouldn’t they cook it ad nauseum? Yet the poor show-out made me wonder whether Trishna, in its attempt to cater to the Northie, has fallen between two stools. Because the food is neither good coastal nor would a card-carrying Dilliwala go there to eat butter chicken or chow mien. So who is it for?
Karnataka Prawn Curry
To be ground to a paste:
1 tbsp tamarind pulp
1/2 coconut grated
1 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
8 cloves garlic
8 red chillies, roasted
2 tbsp coriander seeds, roasted
1 tbsp peppercorn, roasted
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds, roasted
1/2 onion, chopped.
2 tbsp coconut oil
1 onion, finely chopped
500 g shelled, headless, deveined prawns
Dilute spice paste to pouring consistency by adding 500 ml water. Pour coconut oil in a kadhai (wok) and sauté the chopped onion until brown. Add the spice paste and salt. When the mixture comes to a boil, lower heat and simmer for five minutes.
Add the prawns and cook on low heat till done, about five minutes.