Mumbai Food: The fish that spiced up ambotik

Updated: Dec 16, 2018, 18:09 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

With the 150-year-old Chira Bazaar fish market making way for Metro 3 this week, a Goan home caterer shares fond memories of manoeuvring its dingy gullies

The Goan ambotik curry with bangda. Pics/Suresh Karkera
The Goan ambotik curry with bangda. Pics/Suresh Karkera

Fish has always been at the heart of the bustling South Mumbai neighbourhood of Chira Bazaar. And, for 48-year-old Italina Monteiro, even more so. A resident of Dr Viegas Street, which is sandwiched between the busy markets of Chira Bazaar and Kalbadevi, Monteiro is synonymous with her piquant ambotik (a Konkani word that translates to tangy and spicy) and coconut fish curries, and the fish fry, which go from her kitchen to nearly 20 homes every day. With a home-catering business that she started along with her chef husband Avelino, alias Bonny Monteiro, nearly eight years ago, her dabbas today have patrons from as far as Fort and Girgaum. Such is her popularity that even the parish priest of her church orders her fish curries and cutlets from time to time.

Italina Monteiro
Italina Monteiro

With her husband passing away earlier this year, she follows a certain rigour and routine to keep the business going. This involves 6 am visits to the fish market at Crawford Market, nearly a kilometre away, to buy her stock. "But there are days when I can't travel that distance," Monteiro, fondly called Ida by her customers, informs us, when we catch her after a weary day of cooking. It's then that the 150-year-old Chira Bazaar fish market, which closed down this week to make way for the underground Metro 3, would come to her rescue.

Originally from Goa, Monteiro moved to the South Mumbai neighbourhood in 1996, after she got married. Since then, the fish market - just a stone's throw away from her one-bedroom kitchen - used to be her mainstay, like it has been for many other housewives from the Maharashtrian and Goan communities living in the area, who would visit the market daily. For residents like Monteiro, their worries are not misplaced.

The erstwhile Chira Bazaar fish market, which downed its shutters this week.
The erstwhile Chira Bazaar fish market, which downed its shutters this week.

Well-stocked market
Though Monteiro has traversed the market of Chira Bazaar for several years now, she can't recall the fisherwomen by their names, but their faces. "Everyone there is her best friend," says sister-in-law Venosiana Carmen D'Mello, who helps her out with the business.

The market was like any squalid bazaar: its broken tiles, open drains and rotting stench making it hard on anyone manoeuvring its narrow gullies. Yet, the large-heartedness of the cacophonous fisherwomen, who would never spare an opportunity to haggle with customers, made it a welcoming dug-out, says Monteiro. "Unlike Crawford Market, which is ideal if you want to go and buy fish in bulk, here, the women would sell in small 'watas' [portions]. But because they knew that I ran a food business, they'd make an exception, and give me a good deal - if I bought a lot of fish."

Which is a stone's throw away from Chira Bazaar, is also facing a shut down , Pics/Bipin Kokate, Pradeep Dhivar
Which is a stone's throw away from Chira Bazaar, is also facing a shut down , Pics/Bipin Kokate, Pradeep Dhivar

While her food service runs seven days a week, Monteiro prepares fish only on four days - Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday - alternating between her curries and fish. On some days, she opts for a bangda (mackerel), shark, bombil (Bombay duck) or lape (sole) fry served along with dal or egg curry.

"I need to offer my customers some variety," she says. The bangda fry with recheado masala is a favourite among customers. "But that involves a lot of work. You have to clean the innards of the fish, and then slit it horizontally from both the sides, before stuffing it with the recheado, which is made using Kashmiri chilli, vinegar, garlic, ginger and other garam masalas." There is also the ambotik, which, unlike most Goan curries, doesn't have coconut, and is made with red chillies and tamarind juice. It's the base curry for a variety of fish, including sardines and mandeli (anchovy), but tastes best with shark. That the fisherwomen at the Chira Bazaar market would keep all these varieties made it easier for Monteiro to run the business, especially when she'd get unexpected orders in the evening, and didn't have fresh stock in her fridge.

The centuries-old Adamjee Peerbhoy Market in Dhobi Talao
The centuries-old Adamjee Peerbhoy Market in Dhobi Talao

Even during the monsoon, when the fish catch is otherwise poor, the fish market would be bursting at the seams. Ratna Nitisha Nitin Meher, a fisherwoman from Palghar says this is because they would get their catch from Jamnagar in Gujarat. The market also catered to the small Bengali community in Chira Bazaar that prefers "meethe paani ki macchi"; rohu, catla and hilsa being the most sought-after, says fisherwoman Rajni Chinmaikar, 68, who used to buy these fish from Dadar market to sell here. "But I am a Koli, and we only love khaare paani ki macchi [saltwater fish]. Even if I eat rohu, I make it in the Maharashtrian style, with red chilli powder, garlic, tamarind and coriander paste." Chinmaikar, for the first time since she started working as a teen at the market, is fearing a loss of livelihood.

Livelihood gone
Hours before the fisherwomen shut shop lock, stock and barrel at Chira Bazaar, they were still clinging on to some faint hope. They finally settled for an annual compensation of Rs 1.2 lakh per person. "This is not enough," says 37-year-old Preeti Ganesh Dawane. "On an average, we make at least Rs 30,000 each month. But we don't have the capacity to continue this fight. They have promised on paper that they will rebuild the fish market at this location, once the Metro is ready." Dawane has been selling fish at the market since the age of 12, and is a member of the Chira Bazaar Maasli Vikreta Mandal (Chira Bazaar Fishsellers' Association). For now, the fisherwomen have spilled out on to the roads, finding every possible nook and cranny in the area, to sell their fish in small 'tokris'. But this is until the municipality takes notice.

The next best option for most fish-loving residents in the area is the Adamjee Peerbhoy Market in Dhobi Talao. But that, too, has been embroiled in a legal battle for the last three years. Nestled between two dilapidated MHADA and BMC properties, the municipality had asked the vendors from this market to shut shop and leave. As an alternative, the fisherwomen were given a space in Tulsi Wadi near Mumbai Central and the meat shop-owners in Null Bazaar. While the building that housed the market has been demolished, the adamant fisherwomen continue their business, sitting near a pile of debris. "Majboori hai," says one.

Farry Barretto, 77, a resident, who has been buying fish from here since the early 1950s, cannot fathom what would happen when even this market is gone. "I am too old to go all the way to the fish markets in Colaba or Grant Road. I hope this doesn't happen in my lifetime," she says, taking a moment to think, what it would mean to not eat fish ever again.

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