On an island, without seafood
The perversions of globalization deliver fish raised in farms in Cambodia and Chile to a fecund American island. But there are compensations
I had never seen as many dolphins as I did that sunny morning around the shrimp boat off the south-western coast of the US.
Big males, as well as groups of three and four and little ones that stayed close and gracefully arched out of the water in perfect synchronization with their mothers. Everywhere we looked, there were dolphins with those big, permanently fixed goofy grins. They weren’t really smiling, of course, focused as they were on gathering up the shrimp and fish that spilled out of the shrimp boat anchored in a bay off Georgia’s Tybee Island, our home for a week.
Later that evening, at the pier on the beach near our flat, we watched locals reel in small, thrashing sharks. The law says you can’t catch them, so after the hooks were disentangled in bloody fashion from their mouths and tourists posed and preened with the desperate-looking creatures, the sharks were hurled back into the sea.
We spent bright, warm days on an endless beach, playing games with the waves, and collecting shells that you can no longer find on Indian beaches—periwinkles, cockles, lettered olives and whelks. An afternoon with a sun-baked and sprightly 72-year-old marine biologist called “Dr Joe” revealed a staggering variety of life in the tide pools at our feet. We saw any number of scurrying hermit crabs, learnt to spot the spoor of ghost shrimp buried 5ft below (you mean “potty”, said our six-year-old, elegantly deconstructing the word), held an indignant-looking orange pufferfish, which never lost its inflated sense of self while in our hands, and spent some time with sea pansies and anemones.
In short, the seas of Tybee appeared cool, clean and fecund, rich with life. I was eager to make some of this life our dinner, so I headed out to the sole supermarket on the island. The first surprise: The seafood section was the smallest, a little nook of six options, dwarfed by the fresh and cold meats, the latter 10 times as large. The second surprise: There appeared to be no local catch. There was tilapia, but it was farm-raised in Cambodia. Likewise, the salmon was grown on a fish farm in Chile.
I could not bring myself to give in to such perversions of globalization, so I settled for slices of cold-chicken breast, triple-washed spinach—yes, palak—eggs, breads and spaghetti. I cooked dinner every night, and despite the absence of local seafood, I must say that we did all right. I picked up some fresh basil, and used only one flavouring—a locally bottled combo of We Island spices and salt. I used it for omelettes, spinach-and-chicken and spaghetti sauce, the last of which emerged vastly richer than it does back home; I suspect because of the rich, plum tomatoes. The six-year-old, who launches small revolts against palak back home, astonishingly fell in love with my spinach-and-chicken. “Yummmm!” she said. “Appa, can you make this at home too?” I kept extra spaghetti in the fridge and whenever she was hungry—which seemed to be every hour—she would gleefully accept the pasta tossed with olive oil and basil. You can see what I cooked, but I avoided recipes this time because I did not see the possibility of getting a bottle of We Island spice in India.
Lunch was always out: a hot dog on the beach or a mahi-mahi roll on Main Street. There was no seafood shortage here. Restaurants were sea-themed and boasted of local catch. Bubba Gumbos offered a Sunday “oyster roast”; the Crab Shack, steamed oysters, baby clams, boiled shrimp and crabs (and an opportunity to feed alligators in their pen); Sting Ray’s served up conch fritters; and the Flying Fish bar and grill promised live music on the weekends with crab legs. Tybee is small, but not that small. Many of the restaurants were 4-6km away, and we did not see the point of cycling there in the hot midday sun.
So, yes, we spent a week on an island brimming with marine life without eating too much fish.
With two days to go, I finally saw two packets of fresh, local shrimp at the supermarket, but I was too suffused with sea and sand to care. The days were long, with the sun setting only after 8pm. Aside from a day of monsoon-like rain, the other days blazed with light. It was easy to give in to the unadulterated pleasure of lying on a beach reading, watching your child make friends with little regard for accent and language, relearning the uninhibited joys of whooping as you joined her in riding or diving into incoming waves, collecting shells, vacating your mind and merging, slowly, into the vastness of time, big, blue skies and the far horizon.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The author tweets at @samar11