The darkish mash tastes pungent. I scoop it up with a bhakri, a hand-rolled ragi flatbread, and tiger prawn cooked to perfection in a flavourful Malvani masala. When chef Vanika Choudhary of the restaurant Noon reveals the sharp kick is from the sukha bombil chutney, I feel a strange sense of familiarity.
The fact that I have just eaten dried fish, that too in the heart of Mumbai’s posh business district, has me truly excited.
Dried or preserved fish is an essential part of the kitchen inventory in coastal India. It is either stir-fried with vegetables, cooked as curries, or eaten as a relish. But it is often dismissed as “poor man’s food” because of its strong aroma, and the fact that it is not fresh.
A handful of chefs are now working to change the narrative, with experimental menus featuring dried fish in creative ways. Most believe it is the storytelling that completes the experience. Can it change the perception of an ingenious practice, nurtured by ancient civilisations, in the modern dining space? What does it take to re-imagine an ingredient that some reject for its smell?
Choudhary is upbeat about championing ingredients that tend to be ignored in the urban foodscape. The story of Bombay duck, or bombil, being totemic to the culture of Mumbai, and intrinsic to the Koli community, among the city’s earliest settlers, is one she wants to weave into the menu, “Forgotten, Foraged & Fermented”, at Noon. She first roasts the dried bombil on a griddle and grinds it on a silbatta, the traditional stone slab and muller. She then treats it with an in-house garum, one of her many ferments, made of Bombay duck and roselle, a flowering species she sources from farming communities nearby. The pungency of the dried bombil adds a unique flavour dimension along with the floral notes of the garum, a version inspired by the fermented fish sauce from Roman times, and lends the chutney the desired umami.
“The dissociation will always be there, but we need to create a market for ingredients such as dried fish because ultimately it is about preserving the food legacy of a community. If we don’t, we cannot be progressive in our approach,” she says.
When it comes to fish, preservation serves two purposes. First, as a nifty hack to address shortage of provisions during a particular season; in India, typically during the monsoon, when fishing is prohibited due to the rough seas. Second, to reduce wastage by extending the shelf life.
At Nava in Mumbai, chef Akash Deshpande brings in his culinary heritage through memories of his mother drying shrimps on her apartment terrace for the monsoon. “My mother being Konkani, she cannot live without her dried fish, which we lovingly call sukhat. I am, therefore, pretty much used to the smell,” says Deshpande, who serves dried shrimps in a sous vide lobster, as well as dried bombil in the form of a mousse on challah bread.
Although he is unabashed about serving sukhat the traditional way, given its unique flavour, he wanted to do more. “We had to up the game, so once we overcame the smell, we were able to balance it with other interesting components.”
What could be working is the larger conversation around ingredients that do in some ways support environmentally sustainable food systems. For the past few years, Edible Archives, a restaurant in Goa, has been instrumental in steering the dialogue through its seasonal menus.
Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, who helms the kitchen and is known for her “cuisine-agnostic” food, believes it is important to sell the story. “The prejudice could be on the basis of the stink factor but the whole idea of dried fish is backed by the intention to preserve the excess fresh catch. Thankfully, our diners are curious about it,” she says.
Every year, Ghosh Dastidar works with some form of dried fish, be it bombil, prawns or clams, for her monsoon menu. Her love for South-East Asian food sees her cooking with ingredients such as bonito flakes and Maldive fish, a type of cured tuna popular in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and parts of south India. This time, she is excited about preparing an Indonesian sambol with sun-dried clams from northern Karnataka. She serves them with rice cakes.
In the Bengali food universe, shutki, a term broadly used to describe a variety of dried fish, invites a different kind of debate. Shutki is often the reason for conflict between the native Bengalis (ghoti) and those who migrated from present-day Bangladesh (Bangal) after Partition. That it is typically eaten by an “outgroup” and is cheaper than fresh fish, apart from being “stinky”, remain at the heart of the debate.
Shutki continues to be missing from Kolkata’s top dining spaces, though it’s popular in the local culture. But chefs at the city’s popular Sienna Cafe are building a case with a shutki XO sauce, a take on the iconic Cantonese condiment prepared with dried seafood.
“Acceptance is slow, considering Bengalis have a reservation for certain species of fish. Since they are used to Kolkata Chinese food, an XO sauce is the closest we got to normalising it,” says chef Avinandan Kundu. They use chingri shutki, or dried prawns, for the seafood sauce, treating it as a flavour enhancer in Asian dishes, such as noodle and rice bowls.
It may take a while for diners to accept dried fish in the gourmet dining space but the fact that some are promoting an ancient preservation tactic is a good start.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.