Ode to the Oyster
Dhiman Chattopadhyay March 16, 2008
Raw or cooked, oysters are considered an aphrodisiac and are sought after and consumed from Florida to Beijing. India is finally waking up to this tempting seafood.The first bit of advice that you must remember when oysters are mentioned is that they can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be consumed in the months which don’t have an ‘r’ in them. But leaving such archaic words of wisdom aside, the fact still remains that oysters are always going to be a favourite with seafood lovers. Exotic as it looks on your plate though, it’s not as easy to buy, shuck or prepare an oyster dish.
But to begin at the beginning: what makes them so popular? In brief, it’s the taste. Oysters can be very salty or sweet, with notes of cucumber, melon, herbs, butter or copper—all depending on the water in which they grew.
Picking the best
Like all shellfish, fresh oysters need to be alive when you purchase them. Oysters should be tightly shut or, if slightly open, should close when tapped. Avoid ones that gape open (they’re already dead), or give off a sewage smell. And always buy them from a vendor with a good reputation. In India, fresh oysters are hard to find and Cochin and Chennai are two places where some of the best oysters can be purchased fresh.
The raw and the cooked
With all the obsession over raw molluscs, it’s easy to forget that oysters can taste very nice when baked, fried, boiled, or stewed. When oysters are cooked, their slippery texture firms up, and the taste becomes milder. Most chefs agree that cooked oysters are the best way for a beginner to ease into experiencing this delicacy.
How to store
Since they are alive, oysters need to be babied a little bit. Wrap them loosely in a towel, paper towel, or paper bag (all damp); put them in the fridge, and consume them within 24 hours. Don’t store them in water or in plastic, as they can literally suffocate.
Pourings and pairings
While champagne is a traditional accompaniment to oysters, it’s more a marriage of convenience, since both are considered party foods. But many dry, acidic white wines work equally well. Try chablis, as well as unoaked California chardonnay and New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Indian white wines will do just as well.
You will need an oyster knife and a heavy glove, in case the knife slips. Insert the knife into the oyster’s “hinge” and work the blade around in a circle. When you get back to where you started, twist the knife gently to bring the shells apart. Be careful not to spill the liquid. Remove the top shell; then carefully slide the knife underneath the oyster to detach it.
How to consume an oyster
Connoisseurs will say that putting anything other than a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of horseradish on an oyster is sacrilege. But with the fear of bacteria looming large, it’s sometimes worthwhile to cook it as well. “I grew up and started off in the US and have worked in Thailand, China and UK. In China, for instance, I never took a chance and always served my guests oysters which were cooked in the oven for at least five minutes,” says David Ansted, Executive Chef at Shangri-La, Delhi.
Chef Ansted suggests
“This is a very rich oyster dish. The chefs who created it wanted its name to suggest its richness of taste, so they named it after the richest American alive at the time,” says Ansted.
What you need
1 garlic clove, 2 cups loosely packed fresh spinach, 1 bunch watercress, stems trimmed, ½ cup chopped green onions, 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, half cup dry bread crumbs, 1 tsp. fennel seeds, ground, 1 tsp. hot pepper sauce, 1 lb. rock salt, 24 fresh oysters, ½ a lemon, shucked shells, and 2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese.
Mix the spinach, half the cheese, half the bread crumbs, garlic, spring onions, fennel seeds, a dash of lemon juice, butter and pepper in a bowl. Spread on the oysters. Garnish with cheese bread crumbs. Place in an oven at 150 degrees C for five minutes. Put them on a bed of salt and serve decorated with lemon slices.