With the onset of winter, the fisherfolk colonies in Mumbai, known as Koliwadas, start gearing up for a much awaited delicacy—bambu ke bombil, translated as Bombay duck on bamboo. “We catch fresh bombils early in the morning, clean and hang them on bamboos rods for drying,” explains Rajesh Kharde Vesavkar, fisherman and singer-composer from the Vesavkar Music Band, and adds, “They get a mild dose of vitamin D from 10 am to 4 pm and then we use these healthy, half-dried bombils for cooking."
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But why is it a winter speciality when the fish is available throughout the year? Vesavkar says, bambu ke bombil needs to be semi-dried and that’s possible only during winter when the sun is not harsh. Bambu ke bombil is a perfect example of a seasonal speciality from a regional community in Mumbai. It finds no mention in the city’s seafood restaurants where batter-fried bombil reigns supreme. But, Kolis include this semi-dried umami-rich version in an array of dishes, at least twice a week, during this season. It is commonly eaten as a shallow fried or a mixed vegetable curry with eggplants, spring onions and tomatoes. Tamarind or kokum, Koli masala—containing sun-dried red chillies, coriander seeds and several other spices—and a generous measure of garlic are the primary ingredients. “The easiest and quickest dish to prepare is our thick curry which can be cooked under 10 minutes,” says Vesavkar.
It’s also richer in nutrients compared to fresh Bombay duck. “With reduced moisture due to drying, the protein percentage goes up and it doesn’t require additional salt,” explains Dr. Eileen Canday, medical nutritionist and registered dietician, Mumbai. A person can replace two fresh whole bombils with 3-4 bambu ke bombils, and benefit from the extra protein. It’s a perfect win-win situation.
In spite of being high in flavour and nutrition, it plays second fiddle to the popular bombil fry served in restaurants, but is regular fare in homes of communities like the Kolis and East Indians. One of the ways to create awareness about delicacies from micro cuisines is to serve them at food festivals. “Outsiders got to taste these in 2006 for the first time when we started the Versova Koli Seafood Festival,” informs Vesavkar. The festival is run for 3 days every year in the month of January. Due to covid-related restrictions, it was suspended this year, but they are hopeful about organising it in 2023.
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Although it’s a seasonal speciality, there are kitchen hacks to dry it at home any time of the year. Dr. Canday, who belongs to East Indian community, shares the secret of preparing bambu ke bombil using an oven. “We put the medium-sized fresh bombils at 150 C on the grill for about 7-10 minutes. Gloria D’souza, my mother, used to prepare a curry using our homemade bottle masala. She would also add kolim (tiny shrimp) which would take the dish to another level,” Dr. Canday smiles and adds, “She passed away a few years ago, but those warm memories come alive every time I cook bambu ke bombil the way she taught me to.”
Gloria’s Bambu Ke Bombil Curry
8-10 semi-dried bombils, cut into two-inch pieces
8-10 garlic pods, finely chopped
1 inch ginger, finely chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
2- 3 bunches of spring onions (both the bulb and the greens), chopped
2-3 green chilies, finely chopped
1 tablespoon East Indian bottle masala (can be substituted with a blend of garam masala and red chilli powder)
1-2 tbsp tamarind pulp
1 tsp wheat flour slurry
1 tbsp oil
1-2 cups water
Salt as per taste
Coriander leaves and green onion for garnish
1 medium-sized tomato (optional)
Half tbsp dried or wet kolim (optional)
Heat oil in a pan. Add the finely chopped onion, chilies, onion greens, ginger and garlic. Saute for two minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for another two minutes. Now add the bottle masala. Mix in the wheat flour slurry. Stir for a minute and then add salt and water. Let it cook on a low flame till it starts boiling. Now, add the two-inch pieces of bambu ke bombils. Also, add kolim (optional). Lastly, mix in the tamarind pulp and let it boil for 4-5 minutes. This is a very delicate fish and overcooking kills the dish. Garnish with coriander and spring onion greens.
Bambu Ke Bombil Thick Curry (Koliwada style)
8-10 semi-dried bombils
Half a cup water
2 tbsp garlic paste
Half tbsp garlic, finely chopped
Half tbsp ginger, grated
2 tbsp coriander leaves, finely chopped
2-4 green chilies, slit vertically
1-2 tablespoons Koli Masala
Half tsp turmeric powder
1-2 tbsp tamarind pulp or kokam juice
3-4 tbsp oil
Salt as per taste
Mix all the ingredients listed above for marination in a pan. Evenly coat the semi-dried whole bombils with the marination. Leave it for 5 minutes. Now add water and put the pan on a low flame. Let this cook with its lid covered for 5 minutes. Check. Let it cook for another 2 minutes. The water will evaporate. Juicy, spicy and easy Koli curry is ready.
1. East Indian Bottle Masala: Many women sell this in gavthans in Mumbai. Enquire in grocery stores located in erstwhile fisherfolk villages of Mumbai like Kurla, Bandra, Parla, Marol, Madh, Juhu, Kondivita, and more. It can be bought on mannanutrifitness.com, or contact 7718097891.
2. Koli Masala: Agri Koli Masala is available at many places online and offline in these areas of Mumbai. To substitute Koli masala, make a blend of 2/3rd red chilli powder, 1/6th garam masala and 1/6th of coriander powder.
3. The Koli recipe may appear a bit incomplete. But that’s their style of mixing everything and cooking. In some recipes, they don’t follow standard cooking procedures like heating the oil, adding spices and step-by-step addition of ingredients. Pathare Prabhu, another native community of Mumbai, uses this technique too for many of their non-vegetarian preparations.
Bhushan Korgaonkar is a Mumbai-based writer.
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