The Illustrious Prawn Cocktail

When you think of Retro Classics, nothing shimmies like the lip-smacking melange of Marie Rose sauce and lightly kissed prawns in a crystal martini glass – the piece de resistance from the early 1900s till the mid-nineties.

By Madhulika Dash; Stock Images

Question: What is that one dish that almost all chefs in India would have had once to understand the basics of Continental cuisine, then to make it, then to refine it, and then often to revel in its charm? The answer: Quite a few – and this includes the likes of Chef Sabysachi Gorai who had it first in 1993 in ITDC and would try till 2019 as part of his Mocambo dining ritual; Chef Sharad Dewan, who would have it as part of their European Ball Room Menu and then create his own special version with sherry and later vodka and tequila for his special table; Chef Vikas Seth during his tenure in the Cruise and then while remaking the famous Mexican Tequila Jumbo Prawns for Sanchez; Chef Pradeep Tejwani who would have it as a student learning the nuances of European Cuisine and then as part of his retro menu for a restaurant project. The list just swells with more names of seasoned chefs who had to ace the art of making this retro classic as it was one of those few dishes that ruled fine dining ever since it made its hotel debut in 1902 with the Great Eastern Hotel in Kolkata. What sets Prawn Cocktail apart from its contemporaries like the black forest gateau, or the chicken kiev,  , recalls seasoned Chef Nimish Bhatia, “ is unlike them, the cocktail is the creation of a very imaginative mind and among the few dishes in the world that author Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham  in their book The Prawn Cocktail Years have defined as a dish “that has the potential of being truly excellent’.

And for nearly eight plus decades, he continues, “this sweet, nutty prawns bathed in a piquant sauce called the cocktail sauce, and served on a bed of lettuce charmed the finest movers and shakers of the society – and remained the much celebrated often awed at queen of the Banquet Ball that unlike today hosted some of the most interesting gatherings and celebrations.” Interestingly, while Chef Bhatia’s introduction to the diva of retro classic was early on as part of the European kitchens he was put in the charge of, the real admiration of this amazing miner’s bar innovation hit home when he became the Corporate Chef of the Lalit Group, which now owned the renovated Great Eastern Hotel that was built on the same suspension type cantilever bridge technology that was used for the Howrah Bridge. Among the many things that impressed, almost starstruck Chef Bhatia was the menu of 1902 that was served to the crème de la crème of the Calcutta upper society and among the first arrival was the Prawn Cocktail. Served in the long stem glasses, the beauty of the dish then was the fresh prawns that were handpicked by registered fishmongers and delivered cleaned and deveined in an ice box to the hotel for the occasion. Each prawn had to be a shade of rose and all of them had to be of the same length and width. These prized prawns – all medium size – were then entrusted to the most seasoned chef who would make the sauce using house special mayonnaise, hint of cream, ketchup that wasspecially brought in from England, tabasco sauce, salt and pepper.”

Fascinatingly, adds Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Ambuja Neotia Group), “the only two things Indian in this creation that was often handled by a French chef were the pepper and prawns/ shrimp that the British had taken immense liking for. And for good reasons too. Unlike the frozen prawns and shrimps that were used for the cocktail originally thanks to its origin in California or the miners belt around, Indian ports provided the sweetest, freshest bounty of prawns and shrimps. So for the Indian version, the prawns were lightly kissed in butter and then glazed with wine, sherry or brandy before they were laid out on a slab of ice to cool down and stay good till the time service began.”

But the prawns wasn’t the only change that was done to this 19th century creation that gained popularity during the prohibition era as bartenders and bar owners took to selling these little bites as compensation for cheap spirit and cocktails. “The other addition was a bed of ice on which the dish was cocooned in and brought out. This allowed the prawns to last longer on the table, but it also made it slightly clunky and that’s when cooks in Clubs and chefs in the hotel came with the plan of presenting it in a balloon glass or as a premixed tower on a platter, says Chef Sumanta, whose presentation in the East India Room in Rajkutir (a property the group owns) revives in a much charming way. The East India Room’s take on the iconic retro classic is a later Club style format that was developed by the Anglo-Indian Chefs who once served with the British; while the one presented in the menu and often recreated by Chef Bhatia on demand was a standard fine dining style that came in a crystal glassware with the rose-pink prawns with their tails fanned out covering the rim of the glass. Of course, says Chef Bhatia, “we would eventually design a platter and experiment with the sauce by playing with sherry, vodka and other spirits, the composition of the dish and how it was prepared traditionally was never tampered with. Why? Because every single element of the prawn dish was well thought of. Yes, we could have gone for the jumbo variety, but the way prawns were treated to give them the sweet crunch would leave the bigger size prawn, chewy and dry. Likewise, was the case of with the Marie Rose sauce that was tweaked to suit the Indian palate with a little more of tabasco, but the ketchup was strictly Heinz that was a standard practice since the early 1900s. And yes, the dish to make still takes a good half a day or more given that it was always served chilled to go well with a glass of brandy, whiskey and in later years Scotch and Rose.”

And while both the chefs agree that the retro classic’s initial popularity came because it remained an exclusive dish for quite a few years presented only in menus that were bespoke and really high-end, the cocktail does score on the taste. In fact, concludes Chef Sumanta, “it wouldn’t be wrong to say that of all the dishes that were created especially for the British palate in mind, the prawn cocktail did have enough “pucker up” quality to appeal to the Indian sensibility.”

As for the reign, the Prawn Cocktail after remaining the undisputable queen of sophisticated taste for nearly a century in Clubs and standalones and almost eight long decades in hotels finally abdicated for newer innovations and spicier me too versions, the leaving was only temporary.