Very rarely would you find a Bengali hauling a bag of squid or octopus home, to have for lunch.
It could be faintly surprising to outsiders considering how religiously we’re devoted to our seafood. No, really. We mummify dead fish, with shiny scales and twinkly eyes and exchange them as gifts at weddings. In case of a death in the family, it is customary to break a 14-day mourning period by eating, that’s right, fish. The bonier the better.
We put fish, fried, braised or steamed, on our plates everyday, at least for one meal. At least. We know and love our seafood as much as we love our Darjeeling and our afternoon naps. We pick the bones out with our fingers, eat them with our hands, suck and chew on the soft fish heads, lick our fingers clean and heave a giant burp out of our full bellies when were done. We are of the seafood.
Are you slowly backing away out of here yet?
If not, then you’re in for a treat.
Squid doesn’t naturally show up in the fish markets of Kolkata. The city is entwined with the lazy-ass Hooghly river. A few hundred kilometers away from the salty Bay of Bengal. And while you’ll very easily find the best of Hilsa or Pomfret or the Tiger prawns bigger than your head, all the squid we get are mostly frozen and vacuum-sealed sold in supermarkets or specialty fish-mongers.
That didn’t stop me from picking up a pack of squid on Monday. And while I’ve eaten approximately a ton of cephalopods in my lifetime, I’ve never actually cooked them. But no, that didn’t stop me from picking up a pack of squid on Monday.
I also, only did it because they had been cleaned, tentacles removed (sadly) and prepped. And I had, a few years back, bookmarked a Nigel Slater recipe for calamari. Oh, Nigel.
Nigel Slater’s recipe for calamari is as easy and simple as it gets. The batter is one-step, meaning that it’s a quick mixture of egg, flour, paprika and sparkling water. You just dip in the squid rings and then quickly fry them in oil. He serves it with an anchovy mayonnaise.
In our case here, you can’t say that I followed the recipe to a tee. I didn’t. I turned the batter into something I know and have done before – a bowl of beaten eggs standing next to a plate of flour. A two-step batter. Sorry Nigel.
The calamari turned out golden and crispy and with a sprinkle of salt, cracked black pepper and lemon juice, I could have easily stopped there. But when you have soba noodles waiting to be blanched and turned into dinner, you’ve got to think of more than golden-fried calamari and mayonnaise to go with it.
Note: Use a vegetable oil that’s colorless and odorless. Sunflower, rapeseed, groundnut are preferable. Olive oil has never been good for shallow or deep frying. The calamari coated in flour needs to be shallow-fried in 1/2 inch or 1 inch deep layer of hot oil. Since it’s coated with flour, bits of flour may turn the oil darker as you continue to fry in batches. After 3 or 4 batches, I usually switch to a fresh layer of oil.
Try not to fry on high heat. Medium-high is preferable since the oil will not smoke.
For the calamari:
2 eggs, beaten in a bowl
A 9″ flat plate of plain flour, just enough to coat the squid
250-300 gms of squid (it made for about 10-12 small ones), cleaned properly
Oil, to shallow fry the squid rings (see note above)
For the stir-fry:
2 tablespoon of sunflower oil (or any colorless, odorless oil…not olive oil)
1 small onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon of white granulated sugar
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or minced
1 green bell pepper, diced into 1″ pieces approx
1 tomato, diced and seeds removed
2 tablespoons of Hoisin sauce (any good brand that you’ll find in an Asian supermarket)
1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce
2 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Wash the squid and pat them dry with paper towels. Sliced the squid into 1/2 inch thick rings.
Dip the rings in the beaten egg and then coat with flour evenly. Shake off the excess flour.
Heat oil (1 inch deep) in a wok or frying pan.
Quickly fry the egg-and-flour-coated rings till golden and crispy.
Pop the fried calamari on paper napkins so they absorb the excess oil.
In a clean wok, heat 2 tbsp of oil.
Once the oil is heated, keep the temp on medium-high and sautee the onions till soft and translucent.
Add garlic and sugar and sautee for 1 minute more. This takes the pungency off the garlic and lets the onions caramelize a bit in the sugar.
Add in the peppers, tomatoes, calamari, sauces and vinegar.
Make sure everything is coated in the sauces.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Remember, that soy sauce is already a bit salty. So taste the sauce before adding more.
Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes, till the tomatoes start to soften. Soften only, don’t let them turn to mush. Take the stir-fry off the heat and serve atop soba noodles or with steamed white rice!