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Tue 1 May 2007 04:58 PM

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Clawing through the menu

As the crustacean of choice among the region's restaurants, rising costs and depleting stocks have not stopped lobster's increasing popularity.

Classified as over-fished by the UK's Marine Conservation Society - who are currently conducting initiatives to restore its stocks - the price of lobster in the Middle East has escalated in recent months, in line with depleting reserves of lobster.

Chefs and suppliers in the region though, say the lobster's rarity and high price will merely add to its appeal, while its delicate flavour and wide range of possible cooking methods will allow it to be adapted for any cuisine.

"We have witnessed costs rising lately by up to 50%, yet lobster attracts diners who are looking for a live product of high quality," comments Munier Al Sallaq, executive chef, Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai.

Offering live Canadian, Rock and Boston lobster at the Shangri-La Hotel, the rising cost is evident, with Boston lobster alone increasing from AED100 to AED145 (US $27-$39) per kg, in recent months.

"It is an expensive item but this is part of the reason for the crustacean's appeal among certain guests at the hotel," says Chef Munier.

He also adds that its flexibility to be served with grilled vegetables, potatoes or rice, has resulted in it becoming a firm favourite for room service, and accounts for more than five lobsters being sold per day.

Different varieties of lobster

Perhaps the most popular lobster in the Middle East is the American lobster, which is also referred to as Northern, Atlantic or Maine lobster, and ranges in length from 20-60cm and weighs up to 4kg, making it the heaviest marine crustacean in the world.

Found off the Atlantic coast of North America and Canada, Maine lobster is also the most popular variety in the US, whereas its counterpart, the Rock lobster, can be found in deeper, cool waters off Florida, Southern California, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Uwe Micheel, director of kitchens at Radisson SAS Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek, says between 20-40kg of lobster is used at its seafood restaurant, the Fish Market each day. Using New Zealand and Atlantic varieties depending on the season, chef Uwe also uses frozen lobster from Oman.

"Live lobster remains one of our core products at Fish Market, and there is currently a strong demand for seafood in Dubai, so our concept and proximity to the Creek is ideal," says Chef Uwe.

Not just contained to American lobster, in Europe a species of homarus similar to the American variety is found, but the smaller Norway lobster is the chief seafood variety. The Middle East is also known for its lobster, with Omani lobster found in south Oman in the Dhofar region, and around the island of Misirah in the east coast.

With a mottled shell of varying colours, but usually blue-black before turning vivid red when cooked, live lobster is available year-round and has become a prized fixture for chefs across the Middle East. Available in various sizes, lobsters are categorised as either jumbo, large, quarters, eighths and chicken lobsters.


From tank to thermidor

Cooked in a variety of ways, such as boiling, steaming, broiling, grilling and stir-frying, maintaining its delicate texture and taste is pivotal, so lobster can usually be found in soups, bisque or mixed with mayonnaise for lobster rolls.

Lobster thermidor, however, is a celebrated French dish consisting of lobster meat, egg yolks and brandy or sherry stuffed into a lobster shell, while Lobster Newberg is made from an equally creamy mixture of lobster, butter, cream, cognac, sherry, eggs and cayenne pepper.

Cooked live or killed immediately prior to cooking, the lobster consists of a large cephalothorax made up of 14 segments and a moveable, muscular abdomen. Usually shipped with banded claws, more and more restaurants now feature showpiece tanks, allowing guests to choose their own lobsters.

Stored in Amwaj's two tanks that each contain 25 lobsters, the restaurant offers live Boston, while Shang Palace opts for the more costly Rock variety, which is priced between AED200-AED225 ($54-$61). Using suppliers including Fresh Express and European Seafoods, the hotel receives 15 live lobsters every two days.

Not only supplying lobsters, Ajman-based supplier Aquamarine Seafood has responded to demand at five-star hotels for tanks, equipment and training to be provided at restaurants, as Varghese Maliakal, operations manager for Aquamarine Seafood says restaurants enjoy the fact that live lobster can be prepared on demand for diners.

At the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah though,Sous chef ST Murugan says the best lobster in the market is the Royal Blue lobster of Audresselles, which should be prepared a la minute. Recommending that live lobsters be placed into the pot directly if they are to be boiled or steamed, chef ST strongly advises against freezing lobster due to the danger of toughening the meat.

When boiling lobster, the general rule of thumb is to simmer for five minutes for the first 1lb, and three minutes for every additional 1lb after that. To ensure the lobster is no longer alive, a chef should pick it up and see if the tail curls into the body, if so, it is still alive.

Caution should also be given to diners, as much of the body will still contain water, which may stay hotter than the outside of the shell. Chef ST adds that the majority of the meat is found in the tail and the front claws, yet the larger the lobster, the greater the proportion of meat in the small legs and body.

The ethical debate

Away from the region's widespread approval and diner's delight for this exuberant crustacean, ethical debates have begun to surface, like whether lobsters can feel pain when they are boiled. Scottish-based group Advocates for Animals, issued a report last year concluding that they do, and the group released a comment saying lobsters that are cooked alive in boiling water and struggle violently, have previously been stored in overcrowded conditions.

The Maine-based Lobster Conservancy however, concluded that although the creatures respond to external stimuli, their primitive nervous systems would prevent pain, while in Reggio Emilia in Italy, boiling live lobsters is illegal, with offenders facing fines of up to AED2462 ($3335).

Despite the debate, lobster is still in high demand, and due to limited resources, suppliers in certain parts of the world are hit with quotas. And, with lobster catch quantities plummeting during cold seasons, which is becoming more prevalent due to climate change, the already high market value of lobster is set to rise even more over the coming years.

Omani lobster

In the Sultanate of Oman, the government's stringent conservation efforts have positioned lobster as an important financial source for local fishermen. Yet the Dhofar region in Southern Oman and the island of Masirah located on the east coast first began to focus on the commercial value of lobster 20 years ago, and lobster catching in South Sharqiya accounts for 2000 tonnes annually. Lobster fishing in Omani waters concentrates on two species, spiny lobster (panulirus homarus), a shallow water species, and panulirus versicolour. Featuring a light green shell and spiny undersides, the famed Oman lobster tails (panulirus pencillatus) are much sought after by chefs, and typically range between 2-10oz each.

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