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Food special: The Bombay Duck's history with Mumbai

When the rain gods descend on Mumbai, most avoid seafood. It’s the time when the Bombay Duck takes centrestage. Nostalgic home chefs and restaurateurs from Goan, East Indian and Parsi communities recall how it’s integral to their kitchens

“Bombay duck is not a duck; it’s a fish!” How often have Mumbaikars found themselves correcting unfamiliar folk about this unique coastal delicacy? The Bombay Duck (scientific name: Harpodon nehereus), integral to the city’s cuisine, is called ‘bombil’ in Marathi.

Drying Bombay Duck near the Varoli river, Gujarat, where Zoroastrian boats first landed in India. Pic courtesy/Perzen Patel
Drying Bombay Duck near the Varoli river, Gujarat, where Zoroastrian boats first landed in India. Pic courtesy/Perzen Patel

This eel-like fish is found off India’s west coast all year. It is salted and dried in the sun, and is characterised by a strong smell and distinctive piquancy. When the British ruled over the island city, they called it ‘Bummalo’. Usually 6-8 inches long, the drying is done on scaffolds made from bamboo poles fixed in the sand where bars are tied with thick ropes horizontally, in lines, and one above the other.

Raw Bombil with Goan Rechado Masala. Pic courtesy/Soares Goan Food
Raw Bombil with Goan Rechado Masala. Pic courtesy/Soares Goan Food

According to lore, it earned its name during colonial rule in India. This lizardfish was transported in trains that carried mail that were called Bombay Daak. The term was bastardised to ‘duck’, and the name stuck as Bombay Duck.

Goan home truths
In the monsoon, only seasoned players offer fresh bombil. The dried and stored bombil becomes a quick replacement for fish in most homes. Johnny Soares of Soares Goan Food tells us, “Goans, Parsis and Maharashtrians use dry Bombay Ducks a lot.

Dry Bombil cooked in Rechado Masala. PIC courtesy/ Soares Goan Food
Dry Bombil cooked in Rechado Masala. PIC courtesy/ Soares Goan Food

Roasted Bombay Duck when eaten with rice, is a popular poor man’s meal. We make Bombay Duck Green Chilly Fry, a dish that the Portuguese introduced in India. We also make Bombay Duck with the rechado masala (typical Goan masala), accompanied with potatoes.

Harnai Bombil. Pic courtesy/Soul Fry
Harnai Bombil. Pic courtesy/Soul Fry

The drying process happens in summer. Once dried, it is sliced into three to four pieces, and stored in jars.” Soares, who runs a home catering business, recalls, “Even though we consume it all year round, in Goan homes, it is a monsoon special.

Packets of dry Bombil stocked in many city stores. Pic courtesy/Meldan D’Cunha, Soul Fry
Packets of dry Bombil stocked in many city stores. Pic courtesy/Meldan D’Cunha, Soul Fry

On many rainy days, guests would show up suddenly and we had no time to pick up meat from the cold storage. To avoid displeasing guests, dry bombil would be the best, quick fix non-vegetarian dish. The dry bombil would be placed in a pan, onions were added, followed by tomatoes that were sautéed; the dish was ready in a jiffy.”

“We pay Rs 400-Rs 500 (per dozen) in the rains,” informs restaurateur Meldan D’Cunha, of Soul Fry. He tells us about packets of dried bombil and masala made by the city’s Koli community that make for a delicious snack at home. Often, this works as an ideal substitute for fresh fish. It lasts for two days, if refrigerated.

“When my mother would make Bombil, I was given the task of searching for a stone in our compound that would be used as weight to drain out the water (after cleaning the bombil). We make a typical Maharashtrian version of the fresh bombil at Soul Fry, called the Harnai Bombil,” he shares.

Boomla with grandpa
Parsi food blogger and entrepreneur Perzen Patel (a.k.a The Bawi Bride) reminisces her childhood days, “Cooking ‘Boomla’ (as the Parsis call it) was the domain of my grandfather. For a strange reason, our family ate Boomlas only during the monsoon. From June to August, it was a weekly tradition to cook Boomlas.

I don’t use the word ‘tradition’ lightly because for my grandpa, his Boomlas were precious.” She rewinds to her times with her grandpa, when she would accompany him to buy the fish from Grant Road fish market, and her keen observations of his kitchen exploits.

“The only work that the ladies pitched in would be the slicing of the Brun Pav and the chopping of the lemons the meal was incomplete without these two ingredients,” she says adding that he would cook the fish on his old kerosene stove only.

“He believed they didn’t taste the same when cooked on the gas stove. One by one, each member would get their share of Boomlas the sanctity of the Boomlas had to be maintained. Grandpa never allowed another dish to be served alongside.

It was the only time when members were allowed to start their meal alone, as we couldn’t risk the Boomlas getting cold and soggy. After he left us, I continue to get Boomlas at least once a week. I don’t use the kerosene stove anymore, I do feel incredible joy as I cut into them; it was something we always did together,” she reminisces.

Eat it like an East Indian
Home chef Sybil Rodrigues, who takes pride in collecting traditional East Indian recipes, tells us that the East Indian homes love their Bombay Duck too. “We source it from Virar in April. We clean the heads and the side, and dry these under hot sun for three to four days.

I preserve these by placing them in a container. Once inside, hay is stacked over, it is stored away until the entire lot is over, as this helps to make it last longer.  We call the dish Sukhe Bombil fry,” she explains.

Recipes:

1) Harnai Bombil (Soul Fry)

Ingredients:

6 Bombay Ducks

1/2 tsp Chilli Powder
1/2 tsp Turmeric Powder
1/2 tsp Cumin Powder
1/2 tsp Coriander Powder
1/2 lime
Salt to taste
1 tsp ginger garlic paste
Refined oil for frying
Rawa for coating

Ingredients for stuffing

1/4 kg tiny prawns chopped up
2 Onions finely chopped
6 curry leaves
Oil

Masala
6 red Kasmiri Chillies
half tsp cumin seeds
15 pepper corns
6 cloves
1/4" piece cinnamon
1" ginger
6 flakes garlic
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp tamarind
1/4 tsp sugar
salt to taste

Method to prepare bombil for stuffing:
Method: slice the bombay duck horizontally from the stomach. remove the centre bone. do not separate the halves.
wash and drain the water. open up the bombay ducks and place in a line in a cloth.

Put them under a weight to remove excess water. After about half an hour, when the bombay ducks are dry, mix with the ingredients except rawa. Lastly dab it in rawa and deep fry it in hot oil.

Stuff the bombil: grind the above masala to a fine paste and fry it till the raw smell is eliminated. keep aside. fry the onions, add chopped prawns and fry them well. add curry leaves and then the cooked masala paste. add sugar salt and vinegar to taste. add little water to cook. when dry, remove from gas and cool. use this as a stuffing for the bombil.

Take a bombil, flatten with a knife, put this prawn mixture on top. place another bombil over it and seal the sides with the blunt edge of the knife, brush with egg wash. pat with rice flour and shallow fry in non stick pan till golden brown.

2) Goan Dry Bombay Ducks with potatoes in Rechado Masala - (Soares Goan Food) Total duration: 15-20 minutes
Serves: 2 to 3 people

Ingredients:
2 onions finely chopped.
2 big potatoes cut into small cubes.
Dry Bombay ducks (about 18 to 20 pieces cut into 2 inch each).
Rechado masala (150 to 200 Gms).
Oil 3 to 4 tablespoons.
Rechado masala:
Kashmiri chillies 10 to 12.
Peppercorns 5-6
Cloves 3-4
Cinnamon sticks 2 of 2 inch each.
Jeera 1/2 teaspoon
Turmeric 2 teaspoons
Ginger one piece of 2 inch
Cloves 4-5 cloves
Small ball of tamarind
One teaspoon salt.
One medium size onion
Sugar 5-6 tablespoon
Vinegar 1/2 cup
Grind all the above ingredients to make a paste.

Method:
1. Put 3-4 tablespoons oil in a pan.
2. Fry the finely chopped onion till they become transculent.
3. Now add the small potato cubes and cook till the potatoes become soft.
4. Add the dry Bombay duck and continue stirring for 2- 3 minutes.
5. Add the recheado masala .
6. Add half a cup of water and boil for 5 to 10 minutes till the gravy becomes thick.
7. Serve with white rice .

Goan dry bombill chillifry (Soares Goan food)
Total duration..15 to 20 minutes.
Serves 2 to 3 people.

Ingredients.
1. Oil 3 to 4 tablespoons.
2. 4 big finely sliced onions.
3. 2 big potatoes cut into small pieces.
4. 2 to 3 finely chopped green chillies.
5. 5 to 6 curry leaves.
6. 6 to 7 cauliflower florets.
7. 18 to 20 pieces of Dry Bombay ducks cut into 2 inches each.
8. Coriander for garnishing.
9. 1 teaspoon Turmeric powder .
10. One teaspoon of virgin coconut oil( For enhancing the flavour).

Method.
1. Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons of oil in a pan..once the oil is heated add the curry leaves.
2. Fry the finely sliced onions till they become transculent.
3. Add the small cubes of potatoes along with the dry Bombay ducks, tumeric powder and green chillies .
4. Close the lid and allow to simmer till the potatoes are cooked.
5. Once the potatoes are done, add the boiled cauliflower florets and simmer for another 1 minute.
6. Add one teaspoon of virgin coconut oil and garnish with corinder leaves.
7. Serve hot with steamed white rice/ chappatis.
Note. 1 family pack of Dry bombil chillifry( enough for 4 to 5 people is sold at rs 400).

Ingredients:

Tarela Boomla (The Bawi Bride)
For 4 servings of Boomlas as a semi-main course you will need:
24 fresh Bombay Ducks
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp red chilli powder
1 cup rice flour
Salt to taste
Oil for deep frying

Method:
After washing and draining all the Boomlas, marinate them in turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt. Let the Bombay Ducks stand for at least an hour or you can store them in the refrigerator for a bit longer (but remember you will need to bring them back down to room temperature before frying).

 When you are ready to fry, heat up the oil to smoking point. Now coat each Bombay Duck in an even layer of the rice flour. Lay each one side by side in the pan and fry on both sides until crispy – make sure you don’t put too many in the pan at once or they will break when you turn them over. If you’ve made sure the dining table with the lemons, Brun Pav and plates was all set, now is the time that you start serving them up to the family.

Dry Bombay ducks (Sybil Rodrigues)
To be soaked in water for a while and later flattened with a hard object

Ingredients
To be ground to a fine paste
Garlic flakes 10 nos
Cumin seeds 1tsp
Kashmiri chilly powder 1 tbsp
Vinegar 1 1/2 tbsp
Salt as per taste
2 tbsp oil

Method
Apply the ground masala to the bombay ducks and leave it for marination for 5 to 10 minutes. Heat oil in a frying pan n shallow fry till done.

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