THERE are two things in life you should probably never do fast and under immense pressure — getting married, and shucking oysters in record time. If they’re not done properly, both can wind up in pretty tragic situations.
Thankfully, the latter doesn’t require lawyers and a whole lot of money if things go awry. Just ask Zeeshan Ehsan, the young and enthusiastic bar supervisor at Southern Rock Seafood in Bangsar.
He’s the very first Malaysian Shucking Champion, a title he earned at The Great Malaysian Shuck Off. The competition, organised by the Southern Rock Seafood Group, sees both professionals and amateurs trying to pry open as many oysters in the shortest time and is the much anticipated highlight of the annual KL Oyster Festival.
SERIOUS SHUCKING BUSINESS
Zeeshan shucked and presented 12 oysters perfectly in just one minute and three seconds,” remarks a beaming Mostaq Ahmed Rabby, the manager of Southern Rock Seafood. “During the four-hour event he must have shucked at least 600 oysters.
Shucking at the restaurant as Mostaq points out, is a daily ritual where 55 out of the 60-strong staff are armed with the knowledge and skills to shuck oysters. “Out of that figure, 35 of them are professional shuckers,” he shares, emphasising what serious business shucking is.
Around the world, professional shuckers are opening their own oyster bars and are also in high demand at black-tie events, private parties and festivals. The revival, as food and culture critics explain, is sparked by the “farm to fork” movement in recent years. As Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography Of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide To Oyster Eating In North America reveals, oysters are valued for their uniqueness in a market of seemingly mass produced food. “It’s part of the new interest in foods that are authentic. Oysters are the opposite of supermarket food,” says Jacobsen.
Malaysia is no different. “There’s definitely an increase in appreciation for oysters here,” says Josh Green, the director of Southern Rock Seafood which started its fresh seafood distributing business in Malaysia 17 years ago.
Malaysians loved them when we first brought them in. You know, they eat everything!” he adds with a laugh. But as Green explains, oysters were not something commonly found in the country nor is the oyster-eating culture part of our heritage.
In the past, you’d need to go to a five-star hotel to try oysters and they were mostly frozen oysters. Now at oyster bars, you can have freshly shucked oysters of different variations,” he shares, noting that Southern Rock Seafood sells about 15 variations of fresh oysters from seven different countries.
As he points out, no two oysters are the same — they vary in sweetness, saltiness, creaminess and umami intensity, depending on climate, where they are farmed and what kind of water they are farmed in.
Other than the diverse flavours, a lot more people are keen to try fresh oysters because unlike before, oysters are shucked right in front of them,” he says referring to the times when patrons were served oysters which were already shucked, frozen and washed. “Eating an oyster shucked right in front of you is the definition of fresh.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
Patrons are very fascinated by the way we shuck oysters,” says Zeeshan, who admits to the impressive ability of shucking an oyster blindfolded. “Sometimes they want to try, but we can’t allow that because that’s very dangerous,” he confides, recalling a time when a colleague had slashed his arm when his knife slipped.
At first glance, he doesn’t look like someone who was just crowned Malaysia’s very first Shucking Champion. He wears a shy smile but when talking about oysters and shucking, his eyes light up and his shyness dissipates. “I didn’t feel nervous. maybe because shucking is second nature to me now. I’ve been shucking up to eight dozen oysters a day for almost two years. I think I was quite calm during the competition,” says Zeeshan who is from Sarghoda, Pakistan.
That’s hard to imagine considering the cheering crowds, the pressure of finishing fast and not to mention the competition —12 top finalists from the capital city’s most renowned restaurants and hotels. On top of that, the shuckers had to impress judges Jimmy and Marion Gallagher of Gallagher’s, one of Ireland’s most notable oyster farming families.
While admitting that shucking came naturally to him after a couple of tries, Zeeshan admits it still took a lot of practice to perfect the art of shucking. “I broke the knife about five times,” he chuckles recalling his first few attempts. “But slowly when you understand the right technique and know how to use the knife, you’ll get the hang of it,” he says noting that stamina and strength are what shuckers need to possess in addition to their ninja skills of shucking. “But of course, you must really enjoy doing it. I know I do. There’s a satisfaction when you know you’ve got the knife in the right spot before you pry it open.”
He attributes his shucking abilities to Green (who is also known affectionately known as the Oyster Man) who taught him the tricks of the trade. Mostaq nods in agreement but Green chips in with a cheeky grin: “He can now probably shuck oysters a lot faster than I can, considering my age!”
We are proud of sporting heroes like Datuk Nicole David and Datuk Lee Chong Wei. Now our people can have a crack at the top slot at another important sport — oyster shucking!” Green says with a laugh.
He is giddy with excitement when he talks about the World Oyster Shucking Championship in Ireland. “The dream is to produce a world champion from Malaysia!” he says as he clasps his hands enthusiastically. “At least we are represented there,” he says of the iconic Galway Oyster and Seafood Festival which has been running for over 60 years.
The rules of the Great KL Shuck Off are challenging. Internationally, it will be even more demanding. “You can get penalised for quite a number of things — when an oyster is not presented upright, if there is shell or grit in the flesh, if the flesh is cut or if blood is found in the oyster, for example,” explains Mostaq.
In Ireland they will be using oysters native to Galway, which are flat, as opposed to the Pacific oysters used in the Malaysian round of competition. To air freight these oysters for practice, Green points out, is an expensive affair, but one that’s worth the price.
It’s going to be tough, considering it will be our first time competing on the world stage, but it’s going to be worth it for the boys to represent the country,” he says of Zeeshan, and the runner up of the competition, Mohd Fizly Norazlan, a fellow shucker at Southern Rock Seafood.
In just four months, both Zeeshan and Mohd Fizly will be boarding the plane, heading to Oyster Country on the Emerald Isle. The Malaysian champion grows pensive, thinking of his impending travel: “I joined this place as a waiter. Who would have thought I’d be going to visit Ireland someday and compete in an oyster shucking championship there?”