Mumbai is defined partly by its fishing community, just like it is partly by Bollywood. We get our seafood weighed in the market, bargaining for the produce. But with bombil, we don’t have to raise our voice with the fishmonger. It’s cheap anyway. And that’s one of the main reasons why the city’s indigenous Koli community swears by it, outside of many other factors that we will address in this article.
Bombil is found closer to the coastline than most other fish
Bhavesh Koli is an insider who gives us a lowdown on what these other factors are. He tells us that when fishermen take their boats out to the sea, they carry certain ingredients with them that are relatively less-perishable, such as green chillies, garlic, ginger and tamarind. If they happen to catch bombil, these are all they need for a recipe for a curry to sustain themselves while they literally wait for the bigger fish in deeper waters, such as surmai (kingfish/seer fish). “Bombil is found closer to the coastline. So, the fishermen make this preparation while they venture further out,” he says. It’s quick. It’s easy. And the resultant convenience has had such an ingrained effect on generations of Koli folk that, Koli says, his own family still eats it at least once every week.
Fishermen cook bombil on their boats when they are out at sea, carrying non-perishable ingredients for the recipe
But it’s his grandmother who instilled the love for this fish in him (Koli’s WhatsApp status reads, “I want to be like my grandmother”). She is the one who taught him about bombil ukar — a dish made with the fish and potatoes. But unlike a curry, this preparation involves dried bombil. Bombil, by the way, is dried on bamboo poles. A whole line of them are strung up next to each other after being curated with salt, and are left under the sun for about a week. That’s what gives dried bombil a distinctive odour similar to shutki, a Bangladeshi/eastern Indian way of drying freshwater fish. One theory states that this odour is what gave birth to the name Bombay Duck (see box). But for Koli — and his grandmother — it’s not an alien smell like it was for the British. It smells like home, for all the succeeding generations who have been brought up in the same house in Koliwada in Thane East where his grandmother stayed, and which Koli still inhabits.
But coming back to the community, why would they eat, say, pomfret at home, when it’s more lucrative in the market? “In our home, we eat fish at least thrice a week,” Koli says. It just makes more economic sense in that case to rely on a cheaper source of protein. That’s not the only reason, though. Bombil has a distinctive taste, and none of its competitors in the sea can take that away from this eel-like fish. “It’s juicy,” Koli sums up. And no one who has bitten into a bombil fry can disagree with him. The crunchy exterior is born of rawa. But the gelatinous interior is the fish that we are talking about. Unless, it’s dried with salt and smells like shutki.
Bombil – 350 gm
Ginger – 10 gm
Garlic – 15-20 gm
Koli masala – 10 gm
Green chilli – 5 gm
Coriander – 5 gm
Tamarind – 10 gm
Salt as per taste
Clean the bombil. Grind ginger, garlic, green chilli, coriander and tamarind into a fine paste. Put the bombil in a kadhai and add the fine paste, oil, Koli masala and salt. Put in two to three cups of water and heat it for five minutes, or till the bombil is cooked properly. The curry is ready; serve it with bhakri or rice.
What’s in a name?
Bombil, according to The Guardian, was dried and transported by train from Bombay to other parts of the country in the British era. Its smell was so offensive that the British gave the name ‘Bombay daak’ to these trains to identify them, ‘daak’ meaning postal train. That’s how the fish came to be called ‘Bombay duck’. But, this is only an unsubstantiated theory. History still doesn’t have a clear answer behind the name.
Catch up on all the latest Mumbai news, crime news, current affairs, and a complete guide from food to things to do and events across Mumbai. Also download the new mid-day Android and iOS apps to get latest updates.
Mid-Day is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@middayinfomedialtd) and stay updated with the latest news