It’s 4am in drizzly Mumbai and I’m standing on a dark street behind the wholesale bonanza that is Crawford Market. Thankfully, I’m not alone. With me are Hussain Shahzad, the executive chef of local seafood focused restaurant O Pedro, and his fish supplier, Junaid Khan. We’ve arrived before the crack of dawn for the fish auction that takes place at the market from July to September, when Mumbai’s monsoon is at its fiercest.
Khan leads us down the street to an enormous shed illuminated by harsh white strip lights and filled with the cacophony of chattering fisherwomen. Here, seafood of just about every shape and size imaginable is lined up in plastic tubs, thermocol boxes and containers draped in blue tarp. I inadvertently find myself smack bang in the middle of a busy path: fisherfolk jostle past me with containers of fish balanced on their heads, urging me to walk faster with reproachful calls of “chalaa, chalaa” (“move along, move along”).
Keeping up with Khan and Shahzad is tricky as I keep getting distracted by vats of gleaming, silver surmai (king mackerel) and blush-pink bombil (lizardfish). In the few seconds it takes for me to snap a picture, they’ve vanished into the crowd.
I quicken my pace, twisting this way and that to avoid being hit by a stream of prawn juice or getting pinched by a stray crab claw poking out of a crate. Shahzad, with his sturdy build and air of calm confidence, remains unfazed by the chaos. He picks up a long fish and asks Khan what it’s called, where it comes from and whether it’s in season.
As we circle the market, Shahzad points out a mountain of vannamei prawns that are unsustainably farmed using antibiotics in landlocked Nashik, and baby pomfret that are pulled in due to trawling – a widespread fishing method capable of destroying entire marine ecosystems. However, we also spot several varieties of local fish like bol (mullet), which are plentiful and brought in from six hours south of Mumbai along the Konkan coast. At various points, the pair arrange for samples to be delivered to O Pedro.
Eventually, we get into a cab to leave. “It’s important to ask questions like where the seafood comes from or if it’s in season, and also note the naturally occurring sizes before placing an order,” Shahzad says on our ride back to the suburb of Bandra, where we both live. He’s visibly upset about the unsustainable fishing methods that are so detrimental to Mumbai’s marine life. “If chefs don’t create demand for the baby fish and farmed prawns, the fishermen won’t go out and get them.”
Fishing has long been embedded in the history of Mumbai. Its aboriginal settlers, the Kolis, are an old fishing community who live in several settlements across the city. Accordingly, the city is renowned for its legendary seafood restaurants; indeed, no visit to Mumbai is complete without getting your hands dirty cracking open a garlic butter crab at iconic restaurants such as Trishna or Gajalee. But as the volume of diners has increased over the last decade, so has the demand for seafood. As a result, many fisherfolk have resorted to the environmentally unsound practice of bottom trawling, which dredges up the entire seabed in search of the most popular species like prawns or pomfret. The rest of the catch is often discarded.
If chefs don’t create demand for the baby fish and farmed prawns, the fishermen won’t go out and get them
Most seafood restaurants in Mumbai source produce from Sassoon or Mazagon docks, which are supplied by big trawlers. Buyers are mainly concerned with affordable prices and the large sizes demanded by diners, and thus do not differentiate between trawled and ethically caught seafood, which has led to the rapid depletion of fish stocks in Mumbai waters. Fortunately, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the ills of trawling and seawater contamination, and are starting to ask more questions about what they’re eating. “Even if they don’t notice the decline in fish catch itself, they certainly notice the associated rise in prices. Mumbaikars are looking for a change and it is heartening to see how much interest they have in this issue,” shares marine geographer Divya Karnad of Mumbai-based environmental conservation collective InSeason Fish. “We started InSeason Fish to guide people on this journey to seafood sustainability, by going beyond the rhetoric and actually helping people find sustainable and seasonal sources of seafood,” adds co-founder Chaitanya Krishna, a wildlife biologist.
To this end, the duo regularly conducts outreach and collaborative programmes like “fishplorations”, where they educate chefs about how seafood is caught, handled and sold; and how to identify and cook lesser-known species of fish. They also put up posters and placards in restaurants to spread awareness among diners and frequently educate students about local seafood and the impact their dining choices have on the marine ecosystem. Fortunately, this ethos of sustainability is catching on among Mumbai’s restaurants. For instance, seasonality is very much a mainstay of the menu at O Pedro, a lively restaurant with a menu centred on Goan cuisine. “When we were brainstorming recipes, I suggested introducing versatile dishes like Goan fish curry, poke and nishte (“catch of the day” in Konkani) rawa fry,” says Shahzad, who adds that this allows him to swap out the fish used in each recipe based on what’s in season.
Shahzad believes that seafood does not benefit from mileage and hence mainly sources from the Konkan coast, which is closer to Mumbai than the east coast. To help moderate the demand for popular fish, he also tries to use less sought-after varieties. “The pomfret, threadfin and surmai we saw at the Crawford fish auction have plenty of takers. But chefs need to create demand for the other varieties [like mackerel], which are plentiful in Mumbai waters.” As such, he comes up with dishes like mackerel recheado, in which he debones the fish and pairs it with Goan-style masalas to complement its oily quality.
Shahzad isn’t alone in his efforts to promote sustainable seafood in the city. Famed chef Kelvin Cheung, who runs the popular restaurant Bastian, spent six years building relationships with suppliers on the east coast near Chennai and in the northern Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh to source wild and ethically caught seafood. This bounty is then translated into creative dishes like snapper carpaccio, which Cheung slices paper thin and tops with smoking-hot ginger oil and crunchy scallions.
The third-generation restaurateur was born in Toronto and worked in Dinant, Belgium, and Chicago before moving to India in 2012. “I’m okay with selling out [of] a particular dish, and luckily our guests get it,” he tells me over coffee at a large, sun-lit table in Bastian. “If I tell them I have no more fish today, they’ll order something else because they know I’m not going to buy it from some guy on the street, or serve [them] frozen produce.” Cheung firmly believes in preserving nature’s bounty for future generations. “If there’s any chance of my son growing up enjoying seafood like I have, we [must] commit to sustainable seafood and seasonal products,” he reflects.
Traceability is a key tenet at Masque, a Himalayan-inspired restaurant set in a repurposed mill compound in the midtown neighbourhood of Mahalaxmi. It’s helmed by chef Prateek Sadhu, who has worked at Noma in Copenhagen and Alinea in Chicago. Sadhu proudly sources his wild-caught barramundi from the Andaman islands and soft-shell crabs from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh for use across his menu. Worth a special mention among his imaginative dishes is his trout tart, where rainbow or brown trout from a farm in Himachal Pradesh is smoked and stuffed into a cornmeal tart, and then topped with corn oil and corn foam.
Sadhu is optimistic about the future of Mumbai’s sustainable seafood scene, and hopes that locals will grow to better understand the core philosophy of the movement. “Waste has to be part of the sustainability conversation,” he adds. “For instance, in our trout dish, we boil the husk of the corn to make stock. The bones of the fish go into our own compost plant, which generates manure for our farm in Pune.” Shahzad also practices zero-waste cooking in the O Pedro kitchen. Here, the tender meat near each fish’s head is used for ceviche, the body and tail for curry and the leftover trim for fish mousse or stock. Both chefs concur that their patrons are becoming increasingly exposed to culinary concepts like nose-to-tail eating thanks to travel and mass media, and can thus identify with the ethos of sustainability.
It was with this worldly diner in mind that restaurateur Zorawar Kalra opened the highly anticipated Rivers 2 Oceans in Lower Parel in July – an upscale, fine-dining restaurant that features a stunning Champagne and caviar bar as its centrepiece. What’s even more impressive is that in a city so starved of space, Kalra boldly decided to devote 50% of the restaurant to a state-of-the-art 88m2 kitchen that’s equipped with an imported freeze dryer and a Josper grill. Here, diners feast on everything from cold seafood platters to lip-smacking curries, all whipped up using sustainable seafood sourced from all across India and the globe. “The modern Mumbai diner wants to make informed choices about his or her food,” muses the sharply attired Kalra in a deep baritone. “Thus, our menu is prefaced by an illustrated page that informs them where every single seafood variety is sourced from, whether it’s mussels from New Zealand or tiger prawns from Gujarat.”
The modern Mumbai diner wants to make informed choices about his or her food
Along with O Pedro, Bastian and Masque, Kalra’s latest venture is one of the hottest restaurants in town today, requiring reservations well in advance. Clearly, Mumbaikars are becoming increasingly interested in learning about the provenance of their food – something that can only spell good news for the city’s growing sustainable seafood movement. And thanks to these restaurants, discerning diners can finally be sure of what’s on their plates. After all, eating out in the city shouldn’t have to be fishy business.
Photography by Pankaj Anand
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine