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Those East Indians and their cooking code

To convert simple food into ‘ambrosial dishes’, an intentionally and delightfully vague cook book of Mumbai’s Catholic fishing community suggests, requires the personal touch

East Indian Calde. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
East Indian Calde. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

After passing the joggers and walkers promenading beside the mangroves of tony Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai, my 13-year-old wrinkled her nose, raised her eyebrows and gagged.

“Oh my god, what’s that?”

The promenade had disappeared and rows of Bombay duck—strung between poles—and masses of prawns carpeted the sides of a now-narrow road, releasing the collective, powerful odour distinctive to drying fish.

As her fingers squeezed her nostrils shut, she saw little children playing next to the drying prawns of Danda, as the fishing village is known. “’Ow gan dey do dat?” she groaned through her pinched east Bengaluru nose.

To be fair, the aroma of dried fish can punch you in the gut if you have been initiated and panic your nerves. Even after 24 years, my wife—when she is not feeling either brave or loving enough—will leave the table when my mother and I are eating sukat (dried prawns) or dried bombil, as the gelatinous lizardfish used by the Konkan people is known locally.

Konkan cultures are dearly beloved to me because one half of my family sprang from across the state border in Goa, and I have a close connection to their diverse communities, Hindu and Christian. Indeed, my uncle once lived in Bandra’s Chimbai, a goathan or village that lies beyond the other end of the Carter Road promenade. My mother recollected how he loved the music of its East Indian fisherfolk, deeming it much livelier than their mainstream Maharashtrian culture.

I was reacquainted with the joyous culture of the East Indian Catholics this summer when I spent 40 days in Mumbai. A major reason for this reacquaintance was my friend, the writer and journalist Naresh Fernandes, whose mother is East Indian. The term East Indian emerged when Christian converts from the original fishing villages that preceded Bombay (now Mumbai) named themselves thus, after the East India Company that once ran India and to avoid confusion with Goans and other Christian migrants.

The influence of the Portuguese, who were responsible for converting both Goans and East Indians, pervades both communities. But a major point of difference between the East Indians and the Goans is language. While their music shares great similarities with Goan Christian music—horns, guitars and harmonies—infused though it might be with some Konkani inflections, it is distinctively Marathi, albeit a softer-sounding, romantic variety.

When Naresh sent me a video of an East Indian festival organised by the Mobai gaothan panchayat—consisting of food stalls, music awards and the Mobai Premier League, the annual “inter-goathan” football tournament—I went down a rabbit hole of East Indian music online, enjoying and forwarding videos made by bands from the Mumbai suburb of Vasai, an East Indian stronghold.

As recompense for not inviting me to the festival in Bandra, Naresh sent me The East Indian Cookery Book, as originally compiled by Martin D. Fonseca, assisted by Elfreda d’Almeida and “members of the Ladies’ Sub-Committee, E. I. Cookery Book”, first published by the Bombay East Indian Association 42 years ago.

Some pages from this masterpiece are translated and reproduced from a Portuguese recipe book first printed in 1900, when many East Indians—like the Goans—knew Portuguese. A unique feature is that no recipe is more than a para long and its approach to cooking is very much like my own.

“It should be remembered that a recipe is basically a pointer to a particular preparation,” says the book. “But there is an important ‘ingredient’ that is common to all recipes and which remain unstated and that is, the personal touch, the individual creativity—which is all important for converting the simple foods (sic) into ambrosial dishes, fit to be set before a king.”

Amen to that.

Since many recipes call for that ubiquitous East Indian ingredient, bottle masala—home-made masala, distinctively stored in beer bottles and, often, unique to notoriously secretive families—Naresh thoughtfully sent me a packet, along with East Indian wedding pickle.

The recipe for the calde, or soup, that I made needed no bottle masala and was delightfully vague, so I did whatever I pleased. As I was making the calde, our local baker in Bengaluru made poi, Goan bread, for the first time. It was a marriage made in heaven.

That same day, I unpacked gifts from my own Konkan legacy—a dried Bombay duck chutney powder produced in a village not far from Murud, the ancestral home of a branch of my mother’s family, where I had had a spicy, effervescent fish thali at a beachside eatery called the Sri Vinayaka Lunch Home.

To my astonishment, the child—yes, the same one who gagged at the drying Bombay duck—opened the chutney and started to eat it with dosa. “This is yummmm,” she said, in the eloquent manner of her generation. I scratched my head. Redemption is a fine thing.

East Indian Calde

Serves 4


Half kg chicken with full legs (the original calls for two chickens, six goat trotters and an ox tail)

2 tbsp coriander seeds

2 cloves

1-inch piece cinnamon

5-6 peppercorns

1 tsp turmeric

8 pieces garlic, smashed

1 tsp ghee


Salt to taste


Cover the chicken in salted water, an inch above the meat. Bring to a boil, simmer for 60-70 minutes until the chicken is falling off the bone. Debone.

Grind coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns and turmeric to a powder. In a vessel, gently heat ghee, add the garlic and sauté for a minute. Add the ground masala, sauté for a minute. Add chicken, then add the stock and simmer for five minutes.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter. 


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