EPICURIOUS: MUSSELS POWER

12 Jul 2020

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"Super Saturday” has come and gone without the expected disturbances. Television channels and newspapers in England have reported a cautious welcome to the reopening of pubs, restaurants and bars. In fact, hair styling establishments appear to have attracted longer queues than boozers.

We were expecting wild scenes at the Weld Arms, our neighbouring pub in Dorset, but there was little to suggest that it had reopened after three months. Clearly, the legendary thirst that was supposed to be building up among drinkers could not overcome the fear of Covid-19.

I do feel for pub owners: millions of pints of fresh lager and ale had to be thrown away across the country because they don’t keep very long, unlike bottled and canned products. As going out for a pint is as much a part of life in the UK as a plate of fish and chips, or bangers and mash, publicans had been looking forward to a sell-out evening. But the whole business of social distancing — even though the mandatory distance had been reduced from two metres to one — turned many off.

The fact is that the whole pub culture has been in decline for many years, with the ban on smoking, the one-unit alcohol limit on drivers, and the rising cost of alcohol in pubs and bars, when compared with booze available in supermarkets. Nevertheless, having a pint with mates remains a cherished evening pastime.

If you can get your hands on fresh mussels, they can be super-satisfying and can always be relied on to bring full-bodied flavour to the table

In order to compensate for the loss of business, many of these venerable boozers — some of them 500 years old — have reinvented themselves as ‘gastro-pubs’ and even earned Michelin stars for their gastronomic excellence.

While British pubs, apart from the more adventurous ones, traditionally serve the usual boring fare, Belgian bars raise their game and offer mussels and chips. These bivalves used to be available in Karachi but, in today’s polluted waters, I wouldn’t touch one to save my life. There was a time when you could actually pull crabs out of Karachi harbour and have the crew cook them on board their small sailboats without a care in the world. That time is long past.

Just off the coast at Clifton, there’s a small rock rising from the sea that was once known as Oyster Island. Hard though it may be to believe, Karachi was once known for the best oysters in India. According to my 1906 copy of The Commercial Products of India, Karachi’s oysters were sent to other parts of South Asia.

Coming back to mussels, we cook them often as they are simple to prepare, and are popular with our guests. If you can get your hands on fresh ones from Empress Market, throw away all the open ones as these have gone off. Clean the seaweed beards off the rest with a stiff brush under cold water.

Now heat some olive oil in a large pan or wok, and add sliced garlic, onion and lemon grass. Add salt and pepper to taste. Next, pour in some coconut milk and allow it to come to a simmer. Finally, add the mussels and stir. They will begin to open in a few minutes; as soon as they do, remove them and serve hot with a sprinkling of parsley. You can mop up the juice with good, crusty bread. Or instead of coconut milk, you could use white wine if your cellar permits such extravagance.

It’s a shame that our coast no longer has edible shellfish. Unrestricted fishing and industrial and domestic effluents have decimated the domestic seafood industry. Giant fishing trawlers from the Far East scoop up tonnes of fish, discarding the less valuable ones to die. The ocean bottom is scraped by killer nets that wipe out entire species. Meanwhile, local fishermen can only complain to callous, uncaring politicians and bureaucrats.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 12th, 2020