The Star And The Sea
Goa means different things to different people, but if you are a seafood lover, then this is definitely heaven. The summer sun is out and the quixotic ambiance calls for some fun trials that bring a completely new approach to lobster, the king of seafood, pairing it with the good-looking star anise. This is not a meat with which many chefs like to experiment. It is most often found in its simple lemon-and-garlic-butter-sauce avatar. Dismissing this safe bet, Chef de Cuisine, Vijendra Singh Mertia of Chulha and Chef Sohil Panchal of The Verandah at the Grand Hyatt, Goa, promise a new spin on an old game.
The stage is set along the beaches of the Arabian Sea. On the Indian turf headed by Chef Mertia, the lobster is being cooked with an orange and star anise reduction. Tender and succulent, it lies on a bed of sliced cucumber looking particularly inviting. The interplay of colour and texture is evident. Post his degree from IHM Jaipur, the chef worked in Udaipur and Cochin, specialising in Ayurvedic cooking and later as a masterchef in Hong Kong for seven years. This is where he mastered Asian cuisine, particularly Chinese, Thai and Japanese fare. He joined Grand Hyatt Goa last year as part of their pre-opening team for the Indian restaurant Chulha, a family restaurant where the live and working kitchens cater to true-blue, home-style cooking. The food is simple but rich in flavour. From chaat to tandoori to curry… special chefs are invited here from specific localities to satisfy the taste buds of discerning palates.
“Lobster has delicate meat with no typical flavour of its own while star anise has a strong essence. Did you know that while this spice is mostly found in China, some of the best production comes from Arunachal Pradesh?” he quizzes me. “The orange and star anise reduction has a unique flavour that enhances a typical Indian-style tandoor. One wouldn’t think of that combination as Indian,” he smiles. And then comes another quiz from Chef Mertia. “Did you know that the best lobster in some of the finest restaurants across the globe comes from our own coasts of Kerala and Karnataka? Although it is found in abundance on our coastlines, the wow factor attached to lobster worldwide makes this seafood exquisite,” he continues. “One has to be careful though while consuming it. All shellfish is high in cholesterol and should be eaten in moderation.”
The trendy-looking star anise finds its way into the Indian kitchen as part of the garam masala ensemble but it does have its medicinal value too. It keeps cholesterol levels in check. Therefore, in both recipes, it plays an instrumental role in balancing the high cholesterol levels of lobster. “The texture of the food is important. For instance, lobster meat tastes different on a bed of diced cucumber versus layers of sliced cucumber. Although this kind of knowledge only comes with experience, one has to keep on experimenting with ideas. Visualising it is the key,” he adds. When asked if Indian cuisine was a field of his choice, he laughs, “When you join the industry, there is no choice. You never know which cuisine your floor senior will put you on…that too, only after you are done with chopping and washing utensils.”
On the other side of the table, Chef Panchal has readied the pan-seared lobster with saffron, fennel and star anise broth. It looks equally alluring. The shell is left on to add to the drama of the dish. Post his graduation from DY Patil and stints in Mumbai, Dubai and the US as continental chef, Goa is his new home. “In the cruise line, you get to taste so many varieties of good seafood – from fresh tuna to sea bass and lobsters too – there was always so much to taste and experiment with. As a child, I was always fond of seafood, especially prawns; so for the seafood lover in me, my job is a true blessing,” he says.
For Chef, colour and presentation are key to a good preparation. He gets to exhibit his style and try out new ideas at The Verandah, a grill restaurant that caters to western cuisine. Here the fresh catch of the day is on display at the counter. The dimly-lit, sea-facing setting of this dinner place appears inviting. “Although Indians are now opening up to different cuisines, we don’t like everything. We restrict ourselves to safe bets like pastas and pizzas. Also, it needs to be altered to suit our palate,” he adds. He finds it easy to work with lobster. “It’s juicy and full of flavour. I prefer it ‘just done’. What’s tricky in this recipe is the strong flavour of star anise. Using the correct quantity is a requisite as even a little bit more can get overpowering. It’s important to play it right.”
As we sit down to sample the inventive take on these ingredients, the lights get dimmer. Lobster is easy to love, it’s the spice that makes the fare uniquely flavourful and admittedly, different. Both these delectable dishes come across as a cross-cultural mix and are indulgent treats that instantly elevate any occasion to the extraordinary. For now, it is the setting sun that adds its own allure.
LOBSTER WITH STAR ANISE AND ORANGE (ONE PORTION)
Orange juice reduction
Ingredients: Orange juice, 200ml; Star anise, 4nos.
Method: Take fresh orange juice and star anise in a pan, put on slow flame until it reduces to sauce consistancy. Keep aside.
Marination for lobster:
Lobster, 550 gm; Salt, to taste; Oil, 20ml; Ginger and garlic paste, 20gm; Fresh cream, 20ml; White pepper powder, 5gm. Method: Remove shells, clean and de-vein lobsters, wash thoroughly. Put oil into a bowl add ginger and garlic paste, cream, peppers, orange juice reduction and mix well to coat lobsters uniformly with marinade. Keep in the refrigerator for half an hour.
Cooking the lobster: Take out the lobster from refrigerator, and cook in preheated tandoor or oven for six-eight minutes.
Presentation: Cucumber, 2 nos; Mint sprig, 5nos. Slice the cucumber and arrange on a white plate. Put cooked lobster on top and garnish with mint and star anise. Serve hot.
PAN SEARED LOBSTER WITH SAFFRON, FENNEL, STAR ANISE BROTH (TWO PORTIONS)
Ingredients for pan seared lobster:
Lobster, 1000gm; Onion, 120gm; Leek, 100gm; Celery, 50gm; Bay leaf, 10gm; Peppercorn, 10gm; Salt, to taste.
Method: Cut the vegetables in large cubes. Boil water with cut vegetables, bay leaf, peppercorn and salt. Remove the head and insert stick through the lobster. Poach the lobster in the liquid and chill in ice water. Remove the stick. Slit with scissor in the bottom and pull off the entire meat.
Slice the lobster and sear with butter on a hot pan.
Ingredients for saffron, fennel, star anise broth: Fennel cleaned, 250gm; Onion julienne, 100 gm; Garlic chopped, 20gm; Orange zest, 10gm; Lemon juice, 15ml; Thyme, 5gm; Bay leaf, 5gm; Star anise, 5gm; White wine, 100ml; Vegetable stock, 250ml; Olive oil, 15ml; Saffron, 5gm; Salt, to taste; Pepper, to taste.
Method: Cut the fennel in julienne and sweat in olive oil. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Add garlic and continue cooking, when onion turns translucent deglaze with white wine and add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for 15 minutes and check if the fennel is cooked.
Put saffron, fennel and star anise broth in the bottom. Arrange lobster on top and garnish with a sprig of coriander.