The shrimp masala sounds good, so I order some for lunch.
"Hot or mild?" the guy behind the counter at Fish N' More asks.
"Hot!" I answer. I grab a soft drink from a glass case and sit down to wait for my food. A pattern of fire-engine-red chile pods and green leaves vibrates across the banana-yellow vinyl of the tablecloth.
Fish N' More
5702 Hillcroft, 832-252-7787. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Shrimp masala: $7.99
Fish masala: $6.99
Half and half sundae: $3.29
I've known about this Indian seafood restaurant next to Hot Breads Bakers for a long time now. But the concept of Indian seafood didn't really appeal to me at first. I'm not sure why; after all, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and other Asian restaurants are justly famous for their seafood. And Fung's Kitchen, the elegant Chinese restaurant, may serve the most refined and essential seafood dishes in the city. I guess there's no reason why Indian seafood should seem unusual, except that I don't see it very often.
My shrimp masala is delivered by a Mexican woman who is also the cook. There appear to be eight or ten shrimp, and each is the size of my little finger. They're swimming in a brown masala sauce, which comes in an impressive brass bowl that looks a little out of place sitting on a Styrofoam plate. There's also a lame chopped iceberg-and-tomato salad on the plate and a couple of tiny plastic cups, one full of the yogurt dressing called raita and the other a piquant green chutney. The cutlery is plastic. I should have ordered rice to spread my masala out on, but given the choice between rice and hot-out-of-the-tandoori nan, I went with the bread.
There's a stainless-steel tablespoon sticking out of the masala. First, I use it to try a shrimp and some sauce. The shrimp is a trifle overcooked, but still passably juicy. And the fiery masala is as vibrant as the multicolor tablecloth. I spoon the hot shrimp stew into folded pieces of flatbread and wolf down the masala tacos until the bread runs out. Then I use the big spoon to eat the rest like soup. The afterburn is exquisite.
Now, instead of questioning the Indian seafood concept, I find myself wondering: Where has this stuff been all my life? So I call up Houston's best-known Indian-cooking instructor, Suneeta Vaswani, who's just put out a new book called Easy Indian Cooking. The book includes an entire chapter of Indian seafood recipes. I ask Vaswani why seafood is such a rarity in Houston Indian restaurants.
"Ninety-five percent of the Indian restaurants in the United States serve mughlai food," Vaswani explains. The Moguls conquered India in the 16th century, and they were also the rulers of Persia and central Asia. They brought ancient Muslim food traditions to India, Vaswani says. Mogul food is found in Northern Indian states such as Punjab and in Pakistan. Nan, the fluffy bread most Americans associate with Indian food, is originally from the mountains of Afghanistan. Milk, butter, nuts and saffron were all introduced by the Moguls. Tandoori chicken and lamb kabobs are also Northern Indian favorites, as is the wonderfully flavorful mogul version of masala made with cumin, black pepper, chile powder and whole cardamom pods.
There's not much seafood in mogul cooking. The Moguls came from the mountains of central Asia. But there's plenty of seafood in the indigenous cuisine of Southern India, Vaswani says. Few Americans have eaten it, however. The Indian state of Kerala, the center of the country's fishing industry, is famous for its seafood cookery. A typical shrimp masala in Kerala would be a sticky mixture with lots of ground mustard seed, caramelized onions and tomatoes that adheres to the shrimp. Kerala shrimp curry is a spicy stew of coconut milk, mustard seed and curry leaves.
So the shrimp masala at Fish N' More isn't really even Indian seafood. It's a fusion of mogul spices and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, I muse aloud to Vaswani.
"Not having eaten there, I can't really say. But it sounds like a hybrid to me," she chuckles. Hey, what do you expect from an Indian seafood restaurant with a Persian owner and a Mexican cook?
On two subsequent visits to Fish N' More, I don't find a seafood dish I like as much as the shrimp masala. The fish masala features the same zippy Indian gravy, but the Chilean sea bass chunks are too mushy for my taste. I try a whole pomfret, the popular Indian fish with silvery flesh. The small flat fish looks and tastes a lot like pompano, and it's scored several times on each side so a butter-and-chile marinade can penetrate it as it cooks on the griddle. This also allows the bone to be easily removed from the firm flesh. But the whole pomfret is served on a pile of plain rice, and the strong flavor of the fish begs for some kind of sauce, condiment or complement.
The shrimp kabob consists of a bowl of overcooked shrimp with some onions and tomatoes. And the fish katakat, which is advertised as a combination of fish and shrimp in a masala sauce, is made with disgustingly mushy little cocktail shrimp.
Besides soft drinks, the restaurant also serves freshly squeezed carrot and orange juices. For dessert, there's freshly made saffron-and-pistachio ice cream, as well as the frozen rose-water syrup and frozen sweetened corn flour-noodle combination known as falooda in India and faludeh in Iran. The guy who opened Fish N' More was of Pakistani descent, according to the owner of a neighboring restaurant, but he sold the place to an Iranian couple. For Houston Iranian-Americans, the main draw at Fish N' More is the ice cream.
"That man comes from a family with a long history in the ice cream business," an Iranian-American tells me. "I always order the half and half there." The "half and half" is a sundae of saffron-pistachio ice cream with frozen rose-water syrup and squiggly frozen noodles poured over the top. The flowery aroma and thick texture makes this South Asian ice cream sundae a lot more exciting than the ones at Dairy Queen.
"Indian ice cream is different from American ice cream," Suneeta Vaswani tells me. "It's made without eggs." The vegetarian ice cream is made by thickening milk through long, slow cooking. The reduction process also increases the proportion of milk sugar and hence the sweetness. Indian ice cream tastes a lot like India's flavored milk-fudge candies.
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This is the best ice cream sundae I've eaten in years. But the saffron and rose-water ice cream is abhorrent to one of my dining companions. "It tastes like soap," she says.
"It doesn't taste anything like soap," I argue. I can't figure out why she equates floral aromas with soap -- until I start asking her about her childhood.
"When I was about four, my grandmother had this pretty little dish of rose-scented guest soaps in the bathroom," she finally confesses. "I don't remember exactly what happened, but I do remember the taste of soap." So be forewarned, if you ever tried to eat Grandma's guest soaps, you might not like falooda.
Fish N' More is far from perfect, and when a real Southern Indian seafood restaurant opens around here, I promise to become a loyal patron. Meanwhile, I'll try to be happy with the Hillcroft version of shrimp masala and the half and half falooda sundaes at Fish N' More.