Took Kerala to remind me that good seafood often comes in fugly packages


That was my first (politely silent) reaction as a rickety old boatman peered up into our houseboat from his little rowboat below, holding a tray of silvery grey sea monsters that looked like they’d been born out of a hideous marriage between a lobster and a jumbo prawn.  Locally these unfortunate looking creatures are called scampi, which according to Wikipedia is actually a type of shrimp (Macrobrachium rosenbergii ), and not really the lobster species that it refers to in the western world.

I leaned over, staring down at this scampi seller who’d suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the water, wondering whether these God awful things were what my cousin had talked up so excitedly before I’d left for my mini two-day tour of Kerala’s backwaters. “Buy them fresh in the middle of the water, bargain like crazy, they’re totally worth it!

The boatman called out from below. 2000 rupees for 2 kilos. Best price.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I fumed. I don’t care how yummy they are, there should be a fugliness discount on anything so hideous looking.

Yin meanwhile was lounging around on the houseboat chairs, stuffed after lunch and pretending to totally unconcerned with these yucky looking monsters that the old man was showing off as though they were a bunch of sea pageant models. She’s probably seen fuglier-looking things in China, so this was relatively unadventurous. Little did I know at the time that this indifferent attitude was her sly bargaining tactic – feign indifference and the seller will be your puppy. Look enthusiastic and drool over those sea monsters, and the bugger’s got you exactly where he wants.

So I counter the offer with a lame Um no…that’s too expensive. (if bargaining is an art, I’d be one gigantic failure of an artist)

He looked at me as though I were the silliest tourist he’d ever come across. Expensive?! This no season for scampi – sell for higher at coast!

I’ll spare everyone the details of the bargaining tug-of-war that ensued over those fugly scampi. The war ended with my getting one kilo for 700 rupees, just as Yin waved her hands dismissing the scampi man away, and as he in turn started rowing back away from the houseboat. Okay, okay! I’ll take them for 700! (He’d called my bluff. I wanted them scampi bad. Don’t leave Mr. Scampi Man, please don’t leave.)

700 was probably a terrible deal since this was offseason and any haggling aunt could have gone down a few hundred more. But by that point, I just wanted to get the deal over with and have those monsters shipped off to the kitchen and transformed from yucky to yummy.

On a happier note, our houseboat – a luxurious boat with two rooms, a kitchen, a pretty sweet patio, all just to take the two of us ladies around Kerala’s backwaters for a day – had its own personal chef. Such is the kingsly life on these Keralite houseboats.
The chef – gosh I can’t remember his name for the life of me, B-something or the other. Let’s call him Chef B for now. – was a lanky, good natured chap, eager to please and constantly plying us with different fish and veggie treats from the moment we’d stepped foot on the boat that morning. Take lunch for instance – (from top left, clockwise) we had gigantic bowls of coconutty cabbage (totally delish, we actually licked this one clean), pappadums, karimeen fish fry (also known as pearl spotted fish), some sort of oily fish curry that wasn’t particularly memorable, and traditional South Indian lentil-based sambar. Plus rotis and two bowls of rice. For just the two of us, it was totally excessive, even by my gluttonous standards.

Getting back to our 700-rupees-a-kilo Macrobrachium rosenbergii, Yin suggested that Chef B cook half the scampi in curry, and grill up the rest with some lemon, garlic and pepper. Her interest level in the scampi had evidently peaked now that our salesman had rowed well out of sight, and our scampi had been safely deposited in the trusty hands of the chef.

Just as I’d hoped, Chef B did his magic with the scampi. They emerged from the kitchen suddenly looking way more handsome in their red-pink masala rubs than they did in their translucent gray bodies earlier in the afternoon.

This was the killer dish, Yin’s grilled scampi. Chef B had peeled off the shell closer to the tail region, and stuffed the meat into the hollow space so that we could conveniently scoop it right out. Yin’s recommended grilling technique had done complete justice to the freshness of the catch, retaining all the juicy moistness of the scampi flesh and letting the classic lemon-garlic-pepper seasoning seep right through.

The curried scampi on the other hand was merely passable. Huge chunks of scampi flesh submerged in a reddish, throat-warming gravy with tons of Indian garam masala (i.e. bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and a bunch of other spices). Yin found it a tad bit overspiced…either that, or maybe the curry was undercooked, but there was definitely a mild bitter aftertaste in the curry that I could have done without.

While the grilled scampi were the highlight of my Kerala experience, there were tons of other goodies prepped by Chef B that absolutely deserve a mention. More Kerala eats to come in my next entry…

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

10 thoughts on “Took Kerala to remind me that good seafood often comes in fugly packages

    1. iliveinafryingpan says:

      I was the one who got ripped!! :)

  1. Mariam (Mathew) says:

    Haha! It looks beautiful to me, and yummy. I wish I could get fresh seafood here, but Kansas is not known for it’s coastline. I love pearl spot. The coconutty cabbage thing is cabbage thoren, it’s how my mum prepared all our vegetables. It didn’t matter what it was carrots, beans, green bananas, everything could be made into a thoren. When my mom came here she even made green tomato thoren and broccoli thoren.
    So very jealous of you, thanks for sharing the pics!

    1. iliveinafryingpan says:

      oh gosh, it\’s been ages! So wonderful to hear from you Mariam! Thanks a ton for checking out this post and sharing the name of that yummy coconutty cabbage dish – now I can look up the recipe online and make it at home :)…unless you have a home recipe from mom that you\’d recommend (mommy and granny recipes always have the invisible seals of authenticity and supreme yumminess).

      Do stay in touch, I\’m so happy you reached out, and even happier cause food was the reason why! :)

  2. Anja says:

    Hi there,

    I just learned about your blog while browsing mycustardpie. I read you were interested in meeting fellow food bloggers in Dubai. Well, here is one, me, have been food blogging for a year now. My URL is
    Would love to get in contact with other Dubai food bloggers.

    Hope we speak soon.


  3. christine says:

    the shrimp scampi looks amazing. wish i could’ve been there.

    1. iliveinafryingpan says:

      ah christine, you\’d have loved it! really wish you were somewhere closer by…would be amazing to do more food trips together like the one we did with Josh in Chinatown NYC!

  4. RadsM says:

    The grilled scampi looks delicious … I had the best biryani in Khozikodha made at someone home ( in the middle of rice fields)__served in banana leaf ! __Ready for your next honeymoon package with me ? :)__

    1. iliveinafryingpan says:

      you bet – name the place and you have a partner! (though be prepared to come back 10 pounds heavier after all the honeymoon eats!)

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