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Seasonal Seafood: How Mumbai’s Kolis relish dried fish on rainy days

Updated on: 18 June,2022 11:30 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Nascimento Pinto |

The city’s fisherfolk adapt their cuisine when the monsoon makes seas too rough to navigate. The community’s seasonal delicacies mainly feature fish that were sun-dried and stored in the summer, and some of the tiny catch available closer to shore

Seasonal Seafood: How Mumbai’s Kolis relish dried fish on rainy days

Bombay Duck (bombil) being dried during the summer in Versova Koliwada. Photo: Mohit Ramle

The Kolis have faced many adversities in the last one year but the one aspect of their lives, which Mumbai’s resilient fishing community doesn’t compromise on, is food. “Every member, from children to old people in our community across the city, is a lover of fish. We eat them twice a day without fail and cannot do without it. Every meal is literally a feast for us as it has at least two to four dishes,” says Manoj Koli, a resident of the Khar Danda fishing village near Bandra. 

Though they have been celebrating the gift of life with food, Covid-19 did upend their routines. Just as it took away the source of livelihood for many on land last year, the pandemic also managed to do that for the Kolis who depend on the sea for their income. They had fewer months to go out in the water and sales were lacklustre. “We didn’t enter the sea earlier, then the lockdown posed different kinds of challenges. Even if we had the catch, we did not make sale because of the restriction in market timings,” explains Harsha Tapke, from the Versova koliwada fishing community, who has been selling the fish in the market for a long time. 

The community lives mainly in several hamlets called ‘koliwadas’ across the city, including in Khar Danda, Worli, Sion, Colaba, Versova and Navi Mumbai. “Our community is dependent on the sea and the distance between us and the sea is also very less. Since, we are fisherfolk, even during the restrictions, we had to go into the sea. We are called ‘sons of the sea’ for a reason,” Manoj Koli notes with pride. It is this relationship with the sea and their unending love for fish that has made the community adapt over the years. This ability to ‘adapt’ reflects prominently in their cuisine too.

A traditional Koli meal during the monsoon including khare fish curry, rice, bombil kheema fry and bombil kheema chutney. Photo: Mohit Ramle

Preserving bombils and prawns
The daily Koli feast undergoes a change during the monsoon. Due to rough weather conditions, the fisherfolk do not enter the waters with their boats. So the usual specialities such as pomfret, rawas and surmai, enjoyed during the rest of the year, are missing not only from the fish markets but also from their meals at home. Koli explains, “We use these fish in our curries and fry them too. It is made using a special Koli masala and these dishes are usually paired with rice rotis.”  

But relishing fish cannot come to a total stop because it forms an important part of their lifestyle — it is a significant part of festivals and is fed to pregnant women and infants. So while other communities spend the summer drying fruits, preparing preserves, and pickles for the rest of the year, the fishing community uses this time to dry fish in abundance. 

The process of drying fish is visible across various koliwadas in the city, where one is often met with the sharp pungent smell of dried fish. “We dry the bombil on bamboo rows known as valanti or mandav. It takes three to four days for them to dry properly in the hot sun. The prawns (kolin/jawla) are dried on the roof or floor near the coast, which is kept for drying them,” says Mohit Ramle, a member of the Koli community in Versova. 

The dried bombil is used to make a variety of dishes like a dry bombil red curry, fried bombils which are paired with a red daal curry. It is also used to make Bombalachi Chutney (a dry bombil chutney), which is used as an accompaniment through the season and the year.  

Stuffed Crabs at Mohit Ramle's home in Versova Koliwada. Photo: Mohit Ramle

Closer to the shore 
While dried Bombay ducks and prawns are a speciality during the monsoon, the fresh varieties available closer to the shore are also a favourite. “We fish in shallow waters and the creek side for fish like bhiljya (modka) and tiny fish like khare. Stuffed mud crabs and curries made with small shrimps called ambar (kardi) and kolim (javla) are a speciality, we feast on during this time,” he explains. 

These fish are also used to make bhajiyas (fritters), curries and chutneys. Tapke is a known face in the city for her authentic meals, which she hosts for people who want to experience the culture and food of the fisherfolk community. She loves making a variety of dishes with bombils including the bombil pankanji curry. She says, “While I am usually busy with hosting the meals, I make several dishes with bombils and dried prawns. We use a a special Koli masala for the curries and dry dishes and it is used in most of our dishes.”

It is no different for Koli, who is the first generation from his family to explore other areas than the traditional occupations associated with the fishing community. The cost of diesel and the returns from selling the fish don’t always guarantee a steady income so although his mother still sells fish in the market, Koli became a marketing professional. “On our Bandra-Khar stretch, we get crabs on the rocks and kalva fish too. We sell them in the markets and at home, usually use them in curries and make them with kairi (raw mangoes), which are stored during the summer, and potatoes,” he notes.    

Tapke, who has been trying to make the most of the time she has to sell fish in the market, is yet to make one of her favourites for the season. “Since I have been busy, I have been unable to make a really nice bombil chutney, which we usually eat during this season. I am going to get to it soon.”

Recipe for Jawla (dried prawn) bhajiyas by Harsha Tapke
Onions - 250 gms, green chillies - 6 pcs, wet jawla - 1 kg, turmeric - 2 tbsp, koli masala or red chilli powder - 2 tbsp, besan/channe ka atta - 250 gms, rice flour - 250 gms, ginger - 2 tbsp, garlic - 3 tbs, coriander leaves - 1 cup.
1. Wash fresh jawla in water and keep aside.
2. Mix all the ingredients together and prepare a batter.
3. Add a little water and beat the batter nicely.
4. Add salt (as per taste).
5. Lower the flames and fill more than half of the pan with oil, prepare it for deep frying.
6. Add a little water to your palm and press the batter in the shape of bhajiyas before you put them into the oil.
7. Deep fry until they turn brown and crunchy.
8. Squeeze lime on the bhajiyas and enjoy them with tea.

Also Read: Mumbai’s East Indian community love their bottle masala, but they love their mangoes too

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