Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Seafood Diet

Mahesh is the best fish restaurant in Mumbai, but don’t tell anyone, or we won’t get a table next time. Hopeful diners wait on sofas, in the pavement foyer outside, but we have a reservation. It appears not to matter that we’re an hour late, thanks to the swell of rush-hour traffic. We’re ushered upstairs, past a gleaming tank full of huge mouthing fish. I look away. Hopelessly anthropomorphic, I couldn’t possibly eat anything once I’ve named it. Therapeutic fish, I can understand. How could you not have a soothed spirit, with fish in your life, drifting in effortless circles, just saying “Bob” to each other, en passant? As I’m deciding which wall to knock down to house the aquarium, back home, we’re shown our seats.
We peruse the menu, for form’s sake, then resort, as we always do, to asking the waiter. The charming custom here is to show you your dinner before it is cooked. How entertaining would that be, in a vegetarian restaurant? Madame, the cauliflower! See, the lentils! We’re shown kingfish, which is new to me, but, let’s be honest, it just looks like a fish. The waiter tells us what he’s going to do with it; we nod and salivate accordingly. With a flourish, he brings prawns on a plate, grey and huge. Then a pair of lobsters, each the size of a small dog. It’s like roll-call. Greed vies with panic for an instant, then restraint wins, and we ask for just one. And finally, a crab, with its pincers tied. I think this must annoy it - it could while away the long wait playing itself a tune, using its pincers for castanets. It’s patently not thrilled, because it keeps trying to get into the waiter’s pocket. I’m not sure I like this see-food-then-eat-it diet.
When the prawns arrive in due course, it occurs to me that there were only four on the plate on parade, yet we are five. Now, we’re each given a massive prawn, curling its foiled tail in the air. The maths is easy enough, even for me. So I postulate my theory: the show creatures aren’t for consumption at all. They’re salaried. They come out, wave their claws round a bit, then go back into a rest-area in the kitchen, to play gin-rummy. Over and over, all through the night. What we actually eat is out of tins. I find much solace in this posit. I would like to put it to the test, marking the crab with a dot of Tipp-Ex to see if he really is doing the rounds. Unthinkably, I have no Tipp-Ex with me, so the theory remains untried.
The prawns are served, and we’re offered the heads to suck. We decline. The stir-fried vegetables are exquisite, so we overlook eating our own body-weight in garlic. When our plates are collected after the lobster, the waiter ominously parks our knives and forks on our side-plates. We’ve forgotten the crab. The waiter remembers it, though. He brings aprons and industrial ironmongery. I’m so full, I haven’t even got room to lick my own lips. Only the gourmet diehards are left brandishing their forks. The crab, I’m told, is ambrosial. When I’m hungry again, in perhaps six or seven years, I’ll try it. This time, I’ll remember to take the Tipp-Ex.