Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Complex World of Prawn Cocktails

Crustaceans! Crustaceans! Or perhaps I should say "Humans! Humans!" in a bemused sort of way, wondering at how complicated it seemed to get a recipe for classic prawn cocktail. I realized, after a few aborted internet searches, that the word 'classic' should be deleted from this endeavour for it is meaningless without context. Classic, in India, could mean things dating back three thousand years but in America, things might be viewed in a different light.

So, back to the task in hand - a recipe for prawn cocktail. And back to the timeless question of semantics - Is it prawn or shrimp? The Oxford food dictionary kindly informed me that it was both.

And so, I began with shrimp and its world, which is one undoubtedly inhabited by my hero Perry Mason. Shrimp cocktail brought to mind a world of intimate dinners in the 'Golden Goose', where shrimp cocktail and martinis would inevitably be followed by a dance with Della while the steak and potatoes were being grilled to perfection. Or, on occasion, those lavish Texan dinners with discrete clinking of ice and not so discrete conversation.

The trouble was that I hadn't realized that the American Shrimp Cocktail is intrinsically different from the British counterpart. My mind refused to accept a shrimp cocktail recipe that lacked the divine ingredient - mayonnaise. Shrimp and tomatoes and all kinds of flavourings - no thank you! The accent on tomato made me wonder - was this originally a Mexican recipe? Opening my large (and authentic though contemporary!) Mexican cookbook, I found there was a recipe for shrimp cocktail, but it lacked tomato, instead it had large doses of mayonnaise and avocado...

The internet (a refined search!) provided some recipes from Britan and a large number from elsewhere (including India). There were fancy twists and new seasonings (chilly powder for instance), so I rejected these.

Back to good old books - my last resort. A search of all the cookbooks I possessed revealed one that contained this recipe - The Cookery Year, an old, wonderful Reader's Digest publication. There it was - prawn cocktail - in all its uncomplex glory. A vision rose before my eyes, of the India International Centre in Delhi - its dining hall and familiar waiters (especially the one with the large moustaches). Silver bowls filled to the brim with prawns, lettuce, delicious cocktail sauce, boiled eggs and a slice of lemon. Kingfisher beer or vodka and tonic and much animated conversation while waiting for the next course - Chicken Kiev or Tandoori Pomfret.

Reassured that I could now recreate this cocktail world at home (at least the crustacean part of it), I sat down and wrote out my shopping list.

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