I refuse to be part of the herd, and so I refuse to give in to the panic around me and forsake chicken.
Now, I believe chicken is worth forsaking. After nearly 20 years in Delhi, I shudder at the north Indian’s idea of non-vegetarian food—the broiler chicken (or, in adventurous moments, a bit of mutton).
But chicken, it must be said, is healthier than all the other meats the Halarnkars consume, all of them abhorrent to one religion or the other. We have no dirty pigs or holy cows. On a recent visit to Singapore, my two-and-a-half-year-old toddler took a particular liking to stir-fried pork and steamed fish in Chinese food stalls and beef the Indonesian way.
I am not sure toddlers should wolf down such heavy meats, so I try to offer her chicken and fish to temper the others. I must confess that she actually likes chicken, perhaps more than anything else. I have mixed feelings about this. Chicken is a good way to be a non-vegetarian at 2.5, but she won’t grow up to like only chicken, will she?
As I mull that question, there is an outbreak of bird flu, not far from my home in Bangalore. The papers run photos of masked men in white protective suits, wringing the necks of unfortunate chickens and turkeys. At a government-run poultry farm, thousands of chickens and ducks are culled, along with 364 emus and an unfortunate ostrich who hung out on the farm with his smaller cousins.
The flu, caused by one of those viruses that jumps from animal to man, has, thus far, been found only in turkeys, but as a precaution, chickens are culled. Prices have fallen, and in the little play area where I hang out most evenings with mummies and their children, I discover chicken is off kiddie menus.
I try to point out that the flu hasn’t actually been found in chicken, and that cooking a bird—even a turkey—at 70 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes will kill the virus, as will cooking an egg until firm.
But no one wants to take a chance.
Since I refuse to panic without good reason, we continue to eat chicken. I do a lot of grilling and roasting, cooking the chicken for nearly 90 minutes at 175 degrees Celsius, so I can’t see how any of God’s own strands of DNA—which is what viruses are—can survive.
Still, I cannot offer chicken to visiting children, so I find myself stocking up on lots of fish as well. This means a rediscovery of the local fishmonger—whom I have not visited in years—instead of depending on the wife for her occasional visits to the big market on the other side of town.
This is how I find myself at the Rabbani fish stall in Bangalore’s Cox Town. It’s little more than a lean-to, opening directly on to a busy two-lane road, shaded by a phalanx of rain trees, and there are big, fat, black flies buzzing around, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the stolid stall owner, who weakly tries to wave them away with a fly whisk. Definitely not what you would call a memorable shopping experience.
Yet, there is a lot to be said for Rabbani’s fish. It’s fresh—“sabi guarantee, saar”, he says in Dakhni—and the range is awesome. There are the Halarnkar family standards: pomfret, surmai (kingfish), prawns, bangda (mackerel), kane (silverfish) and the rare Bombay duck, which if you do not know is a delicate fish that never lasts more than a day.
As the bird flu has inspired me to go beyond the obvious, I peruse the shark, the hamour (beloved of the Arabs), rawas (also called the Indian salmon), red snapper, squid and at least two other fish I do not recognize. Quite a collection for a shaky, roadside establishment.
I choose a fine, plump red snapper, because it is a fish that requires very little by way of spices. I remember a former boss treating me to red snapper at The Oberoi, Mumbai, whenever he was in town, and I am astonished that it has reached my fishmonger in his decrepit stall. The snapper was always lightly done, as its moist, somewhat sweet, white flesh deserved.
So, when I bring the snapper home, I treat it right (read my efforts below). The end result is something I could savour and share with the toddler (yes, she loved it). Next week, I will cook more snapper and see how it takes to further experiments. I continue to make chicken, roasting it carefully for the baby, who clearly appears to like sumac, a mild, purple Middle-Eastern spice that originates from a fruit.
But in these paranoid times, the chicken does not leave the house. As for the snapper, next week I intend to send it to our neighbours and to my parents, who live nearby.
Bottom line: If crisis pushes you out of your comfort zone, make sure to get out and about.
Red Snapper in Sumac and Sesame Oil
½kg red snapper (with skin)
2 tsp sumac
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp dried basil (optional, I used it with one batch; in the other, I did not)
Salt to taste
Marinate the snapper in sumac, oil, salt and dried basil. Lay on a hot, non-stick pan and lightly sear the skin. Fry until cooked through. Serve hot.
To make it all a bit presentable and add another layer of flavour, I served the red snapper on a bed of two grated carrots, tossed with the juice of half a lime and 2 tbsp of chopped coriander.
Roast Chicken with Sumac and Soy
½kg chicken (I use full legs, cut into three)
4-5 tsp sumac
4 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
Stud the chicken with cloves. Marinate for an hour in sumac, soy, olive oil and salt. Place in an oven-proof dish, cover with foil and grill at 175 degrees Celsius for 1 hour.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint.
Also Read | Samar’s previous Lounge columns