Monday, May 02, 2011

Oye, oye, it’s oysters!

Oyster-eating is a rare habit among Malayalis. Chef Jose Varkey of the five-star Casino Hotel is trying to popularise it.

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Chef Jose Varkey

Chef Jose Varkey picks up an oyster from a bunch placed on a table. He takes a special steel knife and slides it through the gap in the shell and turns the knife upwards. The shell cracks open. Inside is a milky-white jelly.

Jose slides it out with the knife and places the jelly on a plate. Thereafter, he puts a few drops of lime juice and Tabasco sauce on the meat. Then he picks up the meat, puts it in his mouth, and swallows it raw. A few onlookers at the Fort Cochin restaurant of the five-star Casino Hotel in Kochi flinch, even as he says, “Oyster meat is tasty, and contains a lot of vitamins and minerals, including Omega-3 fatty acid, which is good for the heart.”

He enumerates other benefits: it has elements like magnesium and potassium, and provides lustre to the skin. “You can have glowing skin like Aishwarya Rai,” says Jose. “Because of the high amount of proteins, it is an aphrodisiac.”

However, there is resistance. “Malayalis do not have a habit of eating anything raw,” he says. Another deterrent: there is a perception that oysters are not clean, because the rivers are polluted. “This is a misconception,” says Jose.

The waters around the oyster reefs in the nearby Satara Island are being constantly monitored by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI). The moment it crosses the danger limit, like during the monsoon season, the harvesting of oysters is stopped.

Jose, who has travelled abroad extensively, says that there are polluted rivers in Europe also. “When this happens, oysters are not served, till the waters become clean again,” he says.

Nevertheless, to increase the confidence among the patrons, the hotel has set up a depuration plant in the restaurant. There, in plain sight of everybody, the oysters are placed in sterile water. Soon, the animals open up their shells, and the purified water passes through. “All the dirt, if there is any gets removed, and the gills are cleaned,” says Jose.

One who is convinced is regular customer, George Merlo, a lawyer. “I had my first raw oyster on New Year’s Eve last year at the hotel and loved it,” he says. “It’s got a wonderful taste.” He says that he had a fear that oysters from the backwaters of Kochi would be contaminated. “But I trust the cleansing process at Fort Cochin and take it often. Oyster eating will become popular if people become aware that there is such a dish.”

Erin Louis, the general manager, says, “George is right. That is why we are trying to spread awareness about oysters. This is part of our business opportunity, as well as a social responsibility.”

Not many people know that in Kerala oysters are freely available all along the coast, from Kochi to Kollam. “A few self-help groups were growing oysters, and they were about to stop since there were no takers, till we stepped in,” says Dr. K. Sunil Mohamed, a Principal Scientist of the CMFRI. “We met Jose who agreed to promote it.”

Oyster reefs have an ecological advantage. More than 100 organisms live around the reef. The oysters cluster one above the other, and there are a lot of pockets in between. These are the breeding grounds for many fishes. “The oysters filter 12 to 20 litres of water per hour and makes the murky water clean,” says Mohamed. “What more should this animal do for nature?”

Chef Jose says that oysters can be easily exported. “It is selling at $2 per piece abroad,” he exclaims. “You will not believe this, but the farmers have been selling it at Rs 1 per oyster. If they can get higher rates, an entire community can be sustained.”

But there may not be a need to look abroad for sales. Many IT professionals in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai have developed a taste for eating oysters when they worked in Europe.

“Now, when they are back in India, they want to continue eating oysters,” says T.N. Venugopal, a leading exporter of seafood. “Once the Smart City [IT Park] is commissioned, there will be a major market for oysters in Kochi also.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai and Delhi)

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