May 9, 2011
“Do they eat mussels in India? They must.” I thought of what little I knew of Indian food, imagined Salman Rushdie eating prawns in Breach Candy (which has to be one of the greatest placenames I’ve ever read about), striped-shirted fishermen hauling wicker baskets of their catches, chewing paan, spitting, and cursing assiduously (I assume fishermen all over the world are the same), and tried to imagine myself eating a fish curry at a seaside shack in the capital city of the state of Kerala, in the southwest – the name of the city (Thiruvananthapuram) would spend more time in my mouth than the curry, I expect.
I didn’t find mussels in my sole Indian cookbook (Madhur Jaffrey’s Invitation to Indian Cooking, now lamentably out of print). I suppose I also wouldn’t mind owning a copy of Raghavan Iyer’s more recent 660 Curries, which, being a broad survey of Indian regional cuisines, probably has mussels in it.
Anyway, the point is that I’m an ignorant gora (white guy, foreigner) when it comes to Indian regional cooking. I immediately figured Goa would have something to offer me when it came to the cooking of mussels, as it is a thriving seaport with a Portuguese colonial history, and nobody loves the fruits of the deep as much as the Portuguese, except, perhaps, the Goans. So, had I done a little proper research, I would have given you a mussels recipe similar to a vindaloo (from the portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos) – a vinegary, spiced (fish?) broth, a coconut-oil saute for the starter aromatics, which would have been ginger, fenugreek, and mustard seed. And God knows if that would have tasted any good, because I just made that up right now.
No, instead, all that came to mind when I thought about Goa was coconut milk and fish. Now, you’ll recall that I recently made my own coconut milk, and talked about whether or not it was worth it to make yourself (short answer: no, not unless you’re making a whole lot of it, in which case, yes). I quite liked the broth that resulted from the Red Curry Thai Mussels, and desired something similar. I also very quickly zeroed in on a pun and refused to let go of it, never mind that garam masala is a Hindi thing, and therefore Northern Indian (to be unspeakably broad, ignorant, and blunt), and pretty damned dissimilar to the food of the Indian Southwest. I just knew I had to put it in a mussel dish.
As luck would have it, I found a recipe online that answered to my desires; there are sometimes advantages to being a sloppy American food tourist, leafing with my blunt, sausagey fingers through the cookbooks of disparate cuisines, knocking my neck-tethered camera against the grocery stall, mumbling, in crappy Hindi, kya apa me giving-eka-those-things, please? Sometimes you get to use that cultural distance to get away from those twin, imposing obelisks that we call Authenticity and Fusion, and knock them down to make a structure called That Tastes Good.
Before I get to the actual recipe, I should offer a bit of a warning that I may have neglected to offer last time: mussels are still alive when you buy them. I suppose this isn’t common knowledge, even to people that really love mussels – I was surprised to see them open and close and wiggle very slightly the first time I took home a sack of them. (Although it is impossible to purchase the obviously-alive and absurdly-phallic razor clam without acknowledging his membership in the club of living things.)
I say this because I was divvying up kitchen responsibilities between me, my girlfriend Carolyn, and our friend Lauren – this was the night we were also making naan and Madhur Jaffrey’s curried cauliflower. And I said, “Okay, who wants to clean the mussels?” And both of them volunteered, until I allowed that the beasties were still alive: I demonstrated how to pluck the little beardy byssus from the abyssal bluish bivalve (sorry), I told them that sometimes it was necessary to poke the mussel with a spoon or a butter knife to make sure it closed properly. Caro demurred on cleaning the mussels for another day, and set to work on a different kitchen task, but Lauren bravely took on the task, though she repeatedly apologized to the mussels as she cleaned them.
I harbor almost no compunctions about cooking mussels, and while I was a little skeeved out by the one time I drove an eight-inch knife into the head of a live lobster (dude, it kept wriggling), I didn’t exactly feel guilty. I side with Alton Brown when he says that arthropods are basically cockroaches, and I feel a similar remove from bivalves. Nevertheless, I understand and respect your reservations about dropping a couple pounds of living creatures into a bath of boiling liquid.
But there’s really no other way to do this, and I urge you to to chance the consequences; in the rare, rare case that, as Lauren posits, the first sentient beings to make contact with humankind are enormous, intelligent bivalves, likely to be incensed at our treatment of clams, mussels, and scallops, we can just hide those empty shells behind our backs and say that someone else ate them.
adapted from this gourmet magazine recipe – I didn’t change much of anything save for reducing the amount of mussels, and upping the amount of garam masala; as directed, the garam masala flavor was depressingly subdued.
Serves four, plus a little left over
- 2 .5 lbs mussels
- 3 to 4 tbsp olive or coconut oil
- one medium onion, diced
- one largish fennel bulb, diced, fronds removed and reserved
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 2 to 3 tsp garam masala
- ½ tsp aleppo pepper
- 1 can diced tomatoes in juice
- 1 can coconut milk
- 1 cup chiffonaded (ribbon-cut) basil leaves
1. Clean the mussels: run them under cold water (don’t let them sit in cold water – they’ll drown! Remember, they’re not freshwater creatures.), scrub ’em with a brush, pick off the byssal fibers – that’s the stuff they secrete to hook themselves to rocks in mussel-clumps. Sometimes we call that the beard, but I’ve never heard of any closeted mussels in lavender marriages. Heteronormative, oppressive jokes are okay when they’re about bivalves! … Right?
2. Prep the veg: I’ve cut enough onions and garlic to figure that you don’t need to see how it’s done at this point, but perhaps you’ve never encountered a bulb of fennel – or maybe you’ve poked fun at it in the supermarket and never taken it home. It is, I will admit, kind of silly-looking – the sort of vegetable that Hayao Miyazaki might invent. Anyway, trim the fronds with your knife so all you have is the bulb. It doesn’t look so weird now, does it? Denuded of its fluffy green hackle, it resembles nothing so much as a friendly old onion. Treat it the same way – bisect the thing, root-end to frond-end, lay it on its flat side, and dice it.
3. Heat a sturdy cast-iron dutch oven on the stove, and once it’s gotten nice and toasty, add the oil; you could, if you like, throw in the spices now, and flavor the oil – I also see no reason why you couldn’t throw in whole spices here, like cumin seed or coriander. Saute the aromatics (the onion and the garlic), the spices, and the fennel over medium-high heat, until the onion and fennel are soft, about ten minutes.
4. Add the coconut mik and diced tomatoes, stir to combine, and allow the broth to come to a boil.
Plop in the mussels, let it come back to a boil, and then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and steam for eight to ten minutes. After making several batches of mussels, I’ve determined that you probably have to go overboard by a factor of five minutes to seven minutes in order to overcook the things, so I wouldn’t really worry about a twelve-minute cooking time. These things cook quickly, sure, but you’re not going to turn them into rubber with an extra thirty seconds to a minute of cooking. Kill the heat, and add the basil, and a smallish handful of those feathery fennel fronds, chopped.
5. Ladle mussels into bowls, pouring maybe a quarter-cup of broth over them. Serve with naan, and a smile on your face.
Reserve that mussel broth, too, when you’re done. I seem to recall someone telling me once that cooked mussels don’t keep very well. This is BS – they’re perfectly fine for a couple of days; just store them in broth, plucked from their shells. I’ve got plans for that stuff.