YEECH, THOSE THINGS ARE NASTY.
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...