Should You Eat Fish During The Monsoon?
Our food columnist busts a few seafood myths.
Over the last month I developed a sudden fondness for seafood. I ordered fish tikka after a run, tried to plan a crustacean-heavy dinner at Gomantak, and picked out mussels from a paella and prised them open with great enthusiasm. Each time, I got a standard reaction from the shocked people around me, “But monsoon and seafood?” Followed by one of these questions:
“Isn’t this baby-making season for fish?”
“Fishing is not allowed now, so won’t your fish be frozen? Yuck!”
“You do know they say you are not supposed to eat fish in months that don’t contain an ‘r’ in their names?”
In a quest to separate the wives’ tales from the truth, I spoke with a fisherwoman, a fish supplier who sells to restaurants, a restaurateur and a large retail seafood distributor to figure out why seafood is still available right now, and if it is indeed the wrong time of the year to fish. This is what they said:
Why are we getting fresh fish now if fishing is not permitted on the west coast during the monsoon?
Mostly because it has been imported or because the fish is coming from elsewhere in India. Besides, fishermen along the west coast continue to trawl shallow waters when they cannot go into the deep sea (not that this monsoon has been anywhere near ferocious for fishermen) and a few of them will also fish illegally.
It is perfectly legal to sell fish coming from the east coast of India, because fishing is halted during different months on our two coasts. Jamunabai Pilgaonkar, a fisherwoman at the BMC fish market in Colaba, insists that the pomfrets and surmai on her formica table are from a Sassoon Dock distributor who gets his stock from Kolkata by train. Bigger suppliers, like Sanjay Rajaram Chavan, who has been in the business of selling fish for 20 years, and sells to Mumbai restaurants such as Woodside Inn, says that if there is an urgent demand, fish is brought in by flight. “Pomfret and crab come from Howrah, prawns and surmai come from Visakhapatnam,” he says. “Everything is more expensive of course, because of fewer fishing sites and the cost of the cold chain and transport.”
If you’re still eating local fish, it’s because small fishing boats are going out for day trips on calmer, sunnier days and picking up shallow water fish which don’t breed now (bombil, for instance, breed from November to March). However, breeding varieties, such as pomfret, continue to be caught by smaller fishermen and larger mechanised trawlers, even in the monsoon. Which brings us to our next question….
Is it ethical to eat seafood during the monsoon?
It’s easy to find websites, documents and news articles about the illegal and unethical fishing activities along our coastline. To know whether your karimeen is kosher, find an ethical supplier, and ask the right questions whenever you buy fish. “Ask your supplier where it came from and look at the size of the fish,” says Sangram Sawant, managing director of PescaFresh. “Make sure that it’s an adult fish and not from here. Fishing is banned during the breeding season on the west coast (June to mid-August, when the water is less brackish because of the monsoon), and even adult fish should not be caught.” This underage kidnapping and killing of our fish is more common than we think, and we’re fooled more easily when we buy fillets. At fish markets I’ve found pomfrets barely larger than my palm, and surmai steaks that can be anywhere from a few inches wide to the size of a dinner tray. “Until a few years ago, we could get pomfrets that were 1.25 kilos,” says Nachiket Shetye, the chef and owner of 36 Oak and Barley who goes to the market himself to buy fish for his restaurant. “Now the average weight is 500 grams.” Sawant says that the fisheries department of Maharashtra specifies the minimum size of fish that can be caught year round, but many fishermen and trawlers don’t always follow the rules.
Ethics aside, how do we know the fish is safe to eat?
“We have a much better cold chain in India now,” says Shetye. “Most boats that go out have chilling/freezing facilities on the boat itself, which makes it safer than it was before, and therefore okay to eat during these months.” The important thing is to buy fish that stays within the safe temperature zone (4 degrees Celsius and under) from the time it is pulled out of the water to the time it is cooked, to prevent microbial contamination. Sawant says that flash freezing is the best way to maintain texture. Fish frozen or thawed improperly doesn’t flake easily, will turn to mush, or even worse, starts rotting (for tips on spotting fresh fish, read Jamie Oliver’s fun guide). Never have bombil if it is very pink; it’s been artificially dyed. The fish’s natural colour is pale white and grey with just a slight pink tinge. “You can never make a bad fish good,” says Sawant. “You can only keep a good fish good.”
What’s the deal with this whole months-without-“r”-in-their-names rule?
This theory was founded in the western world, because of a couple of reasons. One, because it’s oyster and shellfish spawning season during these months there, and two, because the warmth of the summer months would bring toxin-spreading algae to the coastlines. The “r” theory has little to do with India. A few years ago, The New York Times clarified that the theory is now outdated. (You can read a more scientific explanation of how fish becomes toxic here.) Nevertheless, it’s clear that with our warm tropical waters, our propensity to pollute them, and our sometimes indifferent approach to refrigeration, in India we take a risk by eating fish on any day of the year, and the letter “r”makes no difference.
If you couldn’t be bothered with finding out the provenance of your pomfret, the size of your surmai, or the temperature at which your trout was frozen, there’s always dried and pickled bombil and prawn, which are pulled out of the sea and processed during peak season. That way, you can eat our local fish, and be both safe and ethical.Tags: 36 Oak and Barley, Fish, Monsoons, Nachiket Shetye, PescaFresh, Sangram Sawant, Sanjay Rajaram Chavan, The Tastemaker