It was love at first sight. At least as far as my sight would allow me in that dim oyster bar tucked inside the East Village of Manhattan. Sitting atop a platter of ice, threatening to break form in a moment’s notice, elegantly encircling a lemon wedge as yellow as sunshine, were eight glistening oysters. I picked up the tiny pronged fork, and speared the oyster out of its home. A drop of lemon trickled down its spine as I picked up the shell in all its glory. What ensued was the taste of the sea in my mouth, enclosed around what seemed to be a dollop of butter. It was exquisitely confusing, in a manner that made me reach for another in seconds.
To say that oysters are a culinary celebration is nothing short of an understatement. These bivalved mollusks are an ingredient revered world over - a true delicacy. While some still stand to gain from its mystical aphrodisiacal properties, others find its taste and texture akin to a gastronomical poem. The whole world seems to have caught onto this wonder, yet India has kept a safe distance from it. This despite its never-ending coastline and an affinity for seafood like none other. When found, it is usually fried or pickled - hardly ever raw, the form in which the oyster is highly considered. What is it about this ingredient that once kept India out and away from what’s under its valves? And is it finding its way into our hearts and mouths all these centuries later?
Nothing to see here
To be fair, oysters were not always a food deemed for the gods. Their widespread availability in France, England and the US deemed them to be the ‘commoner’s food’ as they were so easily scooped up. Largely, this trend was the same in India. Amrita Gupta’s podcast on the Food Radio Project speaks of a report written a hundred years ago by James Hornell, a marine biologist. In edible mollusks of the Madras presidency he wrote, “the better class of Indians do not appreciate oysters, and none would make use of this food supply among Hindus. Only the lower classes of shore dwellers eat oysters together with some Mohammedans and Indian Christians.” India’s fascination with oysters, or seep in Hindi, was simply limited to the pearl. The communities that did in fact eat oysters were found in small pockets around the coastal region, more so on the west than on the east. According to the podcast, oysters are the least common shell fish eaten in India, and it is the 1 rupee per piece of shucked meat that provides incentive for its consumption. This manner of eating oysters is completely bereft of the ceremony that they come plated on in the west.
Today, India stands to be the 13th largest oyster producer world over - a long way to have come in only two decades.
Culturing of Oysters
Through the data collected by the Aquaculture department, it has been noted that Indian coasts are well suited to oyster growth. Today, the Indian ‘backwater oyster’, besides thriving near Vembanad and Pulicat lakes in Kerala and Tamil Nadu respectively, is also found in similar locales along the Andhra and Orissa. Other species, like rock oysters and giant oysters are abundant from Kutch to the Konkan coast in inter-tidal waters, according to this report.
Making use of the shallow water, a form of culturing called the ‘rack method’ has been developed. “Each rack is composed of two rows of six poles (2.4 m in length) driven into the muddy bottom at an interval of 2 m apart. Each set of six poles are fixed together by a long pole placed horizontally on top of them; the two rows are connected to one another by a series of short poles placed horizontally between the two long poles. This rack system, which covers an area of 25 m3, constitutes a suitable platform for suspending the oyster trays. Each rack can accommodate 20 rectangular trays which have a holding capacity of 3,000–4,000 oysters.”
It is to be noted that unlike most other seafood in India where in the catch is collected by the men, oysters are mainly farmed by women. “It’s because most harvesting happens in the backwaters and can be done by hand, so they can be close to home and don’t have to venture too far out to sea. If it takes off it will be a really promising livelihood opportunity for women in coastal communities” Amrita explained. And sure enough, it has been.
The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) initiated an oyster farming project in coastal Maharashtra, and its results went well beyond expectation. The pilot project on commercial oyster farming was awarded to 10 women in Wadatar creek in March 2015 and they went on to receive an eight-fold return on the initial investment after the first harvest, according to this report. It goes on to say “On some days the women return empty-handed, but the collective’s first harvest, 6,000 oysters, yielded Rs 50,000 for 125 kg of meat. Now, the group is waiting to harvest 9,000 more oysters in the coming months. The estimated production from a single raft of 150 sq m is 187 kg in 15 months.” These numbers are reason enough for the project to spread its wings to neighbouring states of Karnataka and Goa.
The best part? Oysters are also filter feeders, in that they don’t have to fed anything thus making oyster farming even more economical than any other. Their manner of filtering out water is crucial to the ecosystem as they help remove inorganic and organic matter, allowing for cleaner water.
If the farming and culture of such an animal has been shown to have results favouring the environment and the economy, why has its demand been negligible in India? The answer is fairly simple - it all comes down to our preferences in the way that we treat and consume food, the way in which we cook it. Michael Pollan, author of Cooked and Omnivore’s Dilemma learns that “cooking flesh acts as a process of pre-digestion, making more calories available for less work; this means that the gut can get smaller, leaving some surplus energy that can be used for making brain tissue. So being able to control fire was key to the evolution of Homo sapiens; cooking, indeed, made us human.” It is this natural aversion to eating raw meat, especially seafood, that curtails the demand of the oyster in India.
We asked Chef Thomas Zacarias of The Bombay Canteen what he felt about putting oysters on the menu, and he said “We have no aversion to putting oysters on the menu. It’s just that I haven’t come across good quality oysters which we can source consistently.” With demand being low, there hasn’t been a reason to develop consistent transportation systems to get these oysters around the country. According to this study on edible oyster farming in India, “Oysters kept under moist and cool conditions survive for several days. However it is desirable that they reach the consumer within three days of harvest. Studies indicate that oysters packed in wet gunny bags are safely transported for 25-30 hours without mortality and in good condition.” While systems are developing to ensure safe transport, there is still a dearth of consistent availability in the non-coastal regions of the country.
Opening up the potential
The times, they are a changing. The evolution of the Indian gastronomique landscape has managed to hero the oyster in a manner more familiar to most, albeit sparingly. Restaurants with more reliable supply chains like Wasabi, Toast and Tonic and Fatty Bao feature the bivalve on their menu in a way that does it justice - on a bed on ice with a squeeze of lime, and sometimes a little well of ponzu sauce to lift its flavour, even chorizo’s made the pairing cut. It remains that oysters cooked in a typical coastal Indian manner are far and few between, more likely to be found in the coastal areas themselves.
Given that oysters hold the key to large economic gains within their valves, especially for the women of coastal areas, and that their growth can help raise the quality of water itself, is it time we started looking into oyster farming more seriously? As it stands, our current manner of seafood consumption is unsustainable and largely responsible for the depletion of fish by the thousands. All because we can’t seem to control our demand for it, and allow their natural processes of spawning to occur. With the farming of oysters, demand can be met while reducing the impact on seafood at large that is still waiting to be caught at the break of dawn. This is now a real possibility what with the indian palate swelling with curiosity. If we’re counting on them to open up new opportunities for us, then it is of essence that we open up to them.
Amrita Gupta’s podcast on The Food Radio Project was crucial to the research of this piece. You can listen to it here.
Disclaimer: For the sake of the oysters to come, and your own taste buds, we recommend you to take note of the urban myth surrounding oysters - do not eat them in the months without the letter ‘r’. This is mainly for two reasons - one, summer time makes shipping and preservation a lot harder, and second but most importantly, oysters spawn during these months and their meat at the times is spongy and tasteless. Let nature take it’s course at this time!
Featured illustration by Anjul Dandekar for Homegrown.