The golden duck of Bombay
From being served in its most humble avatar to interpretations as croquettes and fritters, chefs, restaurateurs and culinary icons sing praise of the bombil
At the far end of a glistening beach, the sunlight bounces off a large bamboo scaffolding teeming with tiny fish. The air is pungent from the drying trawl and there's salt in the wind — this is the Bombay/Mumbai you rarely see in the movies. But it is as much a part of the metropolis' landscape as a hurried montage of scurrying trains and breakwaters splashing against the tetrapods on Marine Drive is. The story is similar to the city's cuisine, which has been symbolically represented by the Bombay sandwich, vada pav and pav bhaji for far too long. The secret bottle masala and crisp bombil fry are, in fact, just as Bambaiyya when it comes to food.
A smelly, bony, and ugly-looking fish, the Bombay duck's impact is far reaching. Such that when veteran chef Sanjeev Kapoor was working in a restaurant in New Zealand in the early '90s, some Indians based there requested for the Bombay duck (scientific name: harpadon nehereus). As a moist fish with a low shelf-life, exporting it to the faraway country was a challenge. "They even suggested that I use frozen bombil, but I would end up serving them a gravy I used to make with local New Zealand mussels," Kapoor shares, adding, that what is astounding is how little is known about the fish in India, outside of Mumbai. "I am currently in Pune, and there are so many people here who have never tasted the fish" he laments.
But unlike Punekars, for chef Gresham Fernandes, an East Indian and Bandra boy, bombil has always been a staple. In his home, his mother and grandmother would make it in three ways — as a curry with lots of mangoes; marinated in a vindaloo masala and fried till crunchy on a tawa or muddled with a mortar and pestle to form a thecha-like texture; and thrown onto the dying embers inside vintage wood-fired ovens, all of which he relished growing up, with a humble helping of rice and dal. "I remember being instructed not to stir the curry too much, as the bombil would break," he recalls.
Glorious as the fish may be in its most indigenous avatars, a few restaurants are experimenting with modern recipes, too. Supporting that train of thought, Fernandes says, "I do enjoy an authentic bombil fry made at home, or the version available at Jai Hind in Bandra. But it is up to the chef what they want to do with it. Things can't be static. You need to innovate, and you can, as long as you understand the texture of the fish."
So, experiments are in place. Culinary director at The St Regis, chef Paul Kinny, for example, has re-imagined it as fermented ground gram battered Bombay duck. Here, the ground gram is fermented, such that when fried, it gives the dish a black hue. But a Koli himself, Kinny reveals, "I think we make the best Bombay duck at home. So, I seldom eat it outside."
Fermented ground gram battered Bombay duck
That explains why, despite being new-age, Kinny's creation retains many aspects of the traditional bombil — fried, marinated in Malvani spices, and served with Bombay masala.
At Mia Cucina however, the fish gets a unique Italian twist and transforms into bombil fritto, where the fish is coated in herbed breadcrumbs, shallow-fried and served with risotto and veggies. Whereas at Indigo Deli, the bombil gets a French upgrade, where it's been reassembled as cream-cheese-stuffed croquettes. Served with beetroot and ginger yoghurt, it's a clever creation, which obliterates the impediments bombil posits as a super delicate fish.
Bombay duck croquettes
Elaborating on the idea, restaurant owner Anurag Katriar, says, "Bummalo [its name of origin] is difficult to work with, but it's possible to be crafty, too. We wanted to retain the local touch, but change the presentation. And that's how we thought of turning them into croquettes."
And at Butterfly High, a BKC restaurant, it's served as the Bombay duck rechado bao, a creamy and crunchy dish served with pickled onion and coconut mango, all tucked between supple steamed breads.
"It is easily one of my favourite fish, simply because every family gathering featured it. It is native to this city and a must-have, especially in Maharashtrian households like mine," chef Vinayak Patil, its creator shares.
Kapoor supports these innovations when he says that one must be open-minded, but he also points towards the uni-directional nature of bombil, which is high in moisture and features thin bones. For such a species, contrast is key, and that's perhaps why a rawa-fried Bombay duck remains unconquerable. He cites the example of pani puri, a classic street side dish that has been paired with bizarre condiments like chocolate and vodka. However, it remains glorious in its most original form. Reiterating that, the chef sums up, "Some prayers should just not be translated."
Eat like a local
At Highway Gomantak, Bandra East.
At Pop-ups by Dine with Vijaykars.
Bombay duck bhujane
At Chaitanya, Dadar West.
Bombil fry with thecha
At Gokul Refreshment, Bandra West.
Stuffed bombil fry
At Gajalee, Lower Parel.
Bombil curried in green gravy
At Fresh Catch, Mahim.
Tawa fry bombil
At Sion Lunch Home, Sion.
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