How to kill a lobster and other stories

How to kill a lobster and other stories

There are several theories about the best way to kill a lobster for cooking. Some cooks just throw them into boiling water - a practice which is probably as cruel as it sounds.

The way to do it is to put them in the freezer for over an hour or so - this knocks them out and then they can be quickly cooked afterwards.

I am not a lobster rights activist but there is no reason to subject them to cooking temperatures while they are conscious. You wouldn't like that happening to yourself.

As for cooking lobster, many establishments in Europe simply dunk them in the aforementioned boiling water, shell them, cut the meat into cute chunks and serve with sauce - or grilled again with sauce if making a Lobster Thermidor (a dish which I personally don't find particularly appealing).

There are some issues with boiling lobsters - the water sloshes around inside the body of the lobster and washes away a significant amount of the innate flavour of the lobster.

You can observe and smell this in the pans after boiling them - that is the flavour that has been boiled out of the lobster.

That's why restaurants usually need to serve them with heavy (often cheesy) sauces - which sounds ridiculous if one thinks about it, as properly-cooked lobster meat by itself has a very fine flavour and texture. At least, that is what you are really paying for.

Some places would serve grilled or roast lobster, which is definitely an improvement over boiling in terms of taste. The downside is that the flesh of the lobster will bond with the shell under intense dry heat and make it difficult to extract.

Lobsters are not the easiest thing to eat anyway and roasting or grilling them will make them even trickier to enjoy.

Steaming might be an alternative but normal steaming is not much better than boiling unless one can use high-pressure steam, which is somewhat dangerous in a normal kitchen.

The Chinese tend to chop up lobsters and stir-fry them with a dash of salt, scallions, sliced ginger, chopped garlic, vegetables, perhaps an egg - and a few splashes of water mixed with a little corn starch (usually also with added monosodium glutamate) before serving, or adding in some noodles before serving.

This works too - and is usually quite delicious. But the restaurants in London's Chinatown can charge up to £75 (S$151) for this dish, which is not really great value and it still hides the inherent taste of the sweet lobster meat to some degree.

So perhaps the best way to enjoy the real taste of lobster is to cook it via a combination of steaming and grilling (or roasting).

The lobsters are steamed quickly - only about a minute so that the outside of the flesh is just slightly cooked and still moist, then the tail and claws are separated to be grilled or roasted.

Before grilling, the tail is also cut in half lengthwise to expose the flesh. Splitting the tail and separating out the chunky pieces allows the oven or grill heat to circulate better so that they cook together at the same time.

And having them pre-steamed retains enough moisture so that the meat proteins don't stick to the shell. Perfect.

And that is exactly the way my favourite lobster restaurant in the UK cooks them. I suppose a few of you who travel to London once in a while would now like to know the name of this paradigm of a lobster restaurant - and I can inform you that it is called Burger & Lobster.

They actually don't even have a food menu but they will explain why when you come. There are a few branches in town but my local one is on Bread Street near St Paul's.

You can even specify how well-grilled you want the lobster, ranging from a light grill to full grill. Or you can have it just steamed too.

At £20, plus service, for around a 1.5lb (680g) lobster, it is practically free, especially compared to the outrageous prices charged at the swankier restaurants.

At this point, you are welcome to flip over the page because the rest of this article is going to be a little discourse about astaxanthin, the carotenoid in lobster shells.

As carotenoids go, this particular molecule is allegedly a pretty stellar antioxidant - although it is not water-soluble so ingesting it would be problematic without some fats or lipids involved.

It is somewhat incredible how lobsters (and other crustaceans) evolved the mechanisms to firstly extract out a bright red compound from microalgae, and then immediately apply a dose of quantum physics to the compound (by re-ordering the molecules inside the protein crustacyanin) to render it for use as a dark camouflage on the exterior of the body.

This is really quite bizarre, but oddly also very effective.

What is also interesting is that there are indications that astaxanthin may be an effective anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agent in some mammals.

Some trials have suggested that it is potentially an aid for promoting cardiovascular, eye and brain health as well as physical endurance.

However, the only known detailed trials have been done on rodents and the benefits on mice at least have been noted with a degree of scientific certainty.

As far as I know, no large-scale studies of the effect of astaxanthin have been done on humans although it is commonly acknowledged that natural astaxanthin is pretty harmless and non-toxic at the trialled dosages.

However, it should be noted that artificially synthesized astaxanthin is quite definitely unsafe for human consumption as they are derived from petrochemicals which create a different internal mix of stereoisomers (this means that although they are chemically identical, the 3D structures of the synthetic molecules are different from the natural structures).

Artificial astaxanthin is used as feed for the aquaculture and egg farming industry to make cultivated crustaceans pink, redden the flesh of farmed salmon and to darken egg yolks.

Although it is a carotenoid, astaxanthin is not capable of being converted into Vitamin A, unlike the carotene found in carrots or other carotenoids.

However, there is weak anecdotal evidence that astaxanthin might help reduce the amount of UV damage in the eyes and the skin.

Again, it has to be stressed that no large-scale meaningful clinical trials have yet been done on humans on the effects of astaxanthin - but at least it is reassuring to know that it is one of the safest natural compounds that can be ingested (though in reality, one gets a negligible amount of astaxanthin from eating lobster).

Anyway, regardless of it all, I have very few qualms about enjoying a couple of lobsters every week while mulling over intricate, hypothetical issues - such as the impact of netting on monotonicity. It's not the easiest of jobs - the work, I mean - but it has its compensations.

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