Romancing the Bombay Duck….Bombill for your taste buds.

Sea fishes do not top the favourite list of fish lovers in the Eastern part of India, unlike Western coasts where sea fishes are much valued, tasted and experimented with.During the last couple of decades or more sea fishes like Pomfret,Sardines,Mackarels and what we call Loitta in Bengali is seen in the Kolkata markets with regularity as well has gained in popularity. Loitta in particular has been an delicacy with the Bangals for ages. Loitta jhuri (scrambled Loitta) and dried Loitta has been a favourite with the Bangals (people who migrated from modern Bangladesh during Partition of India in 1947) and in the north eastern part of India.What we call Loitta is known as Bombay Duck or Bombil in the western coast of our country.They are much loved along the entire Konkan coast.

With an ancestry from East Bengal and married into a rigid Bangal family, Loitta is one of my favourites. Spiced up,dry with oil oozing out and with a generous addition of vegetables Loitta jhuri continues to be a delicacy in my house.My recent trip to Bombay where I saw the love for loitta, known as Bombay Duck or Bombill made me realize that distinctions of language,culture can be easily transcended by taste.Tastes are often similar across various distinctions.Labelled as ‘lizardfish’ on Wikipedia, Bombill has a special place in the hearts of the Bombayites.

This soft fish has a mythological story associated with its evolution.. Legends say that when Lord Rama was building a bridge to Lanka, he sought the help of all the fishes in the sea. With the exception of Bombill all of them obliged. Lord Rama was angered at such an errant behavior and he threw them into the seas near Bombay but not before crushing it in his palms. This physical torture crushed all its bones and it lives devoid of a backbone for ever. Govind Narayan in his autobiography,- ‘Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863’ narrated the story.

Etymologically Bombill is also linked to the Indian Railways during the colonial period. When the rail links started connecting Bombay to Calcutta, Bombill was transported to the Eastern part by the railways. Since the smell of the dried fish was overpowering,the Bombay Mail (or Bombay Daak) smelled fishy.”You smell like the Bombay Daak” became common in use in the days of the British Raj. Bombay Daak eventually was spelled as “Bombay Duck”. However the Oxford English Dictionary dates “Bombay Duck” to 1850, two years before the first railroad in Bombay was constructed.The word could also have been an anglicisation of the local Marathi name for the fish, bombil, used by the Maharashtrians that the British couldn’t spell correctly. Or perhaps the name is born from the Marathi bazaar cry, “bomiltak” (“here is bombil”). British-Parsi writer, Farrukh Dhondy, in his book “Bombay Duck “ wrote that the name came from the British mail trains that delivered orders of dried fish from the city to the interior of India. These wagon loads of fish became known as “Bombay Dak”.(The word dak means “mail”.)

According to some historians,the term Bombay duck was first coined by Robert Clive, after he tasted it during his conquest of Bengal. He is said to have associated the pungent smell with that of the newspapers and mail which would come into the cantonments from Bombay. In his 1829, “Book of poems and Indian reminiscences”, Sir Toby Rendrag notes the use of a fish nicknamed ‘Bombay Duck’ and the phrase was used in texts as early as 1815.

The following definition is from Hobson-Johnson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words first published in 1886, by Henry Yule (1820-89) and Arthur Coke Burnell (1840-82):

(1903 edition)
Bummelo. A small fish, abounding on all the coasts of India and the Archipelago; Harpodon nehereus of Buch. Hamilton; the specific name being taken from the Bengali name nehare. The fish is a great delicacy when fresh caught and fried. When dried it becomes the famous Bombay duck […], which is now imported into England.

The first known mention of this fish is found in A new account of East-India and Persia, in eight letters being nine years travels begun 1672 and finished 1681 (London, 1698), by the English travel writer and doctor John Fryer (circa 1650-1733); when describing Bombay, he wrote the following:

On the backside of the Towns of Bombaim and Maijm, are Woods of Cocoes (under which inhabit the Banderines, those that prune and cultivate them), these Hortoes being the greatest Purchase and Estates on the Island, for some Miles together, till the Sea break in between them: Overagainst which, up the Bay a Mile, lies Massegoung, a great Fishing-Town, peculiarly notable for a Fish called Bumbelo, the Sustenance of the Poorer sort, who live on them and Batty, a course sort of Rice, and the Wine of the Cocoe, called Toddy.

The name Bombay duck is first recorded in Paddy Hew; A Poem, from the Brain of Timothy Tarpaulin (London, 1815), by A. Clark and William Combe:

To live there always on the rack
[…]
My carcase there did hourly waste,
Like Bombay duck and quite as fast,
When native strings him up by gills
And reeking fat runs down in rills,
Until it be reduc’d by sun
To shrivelled muscle, skin and bone.

Reverend Abram Smythe Palmer (1844-1917) explained in Folk Etymology: A dictionary of verbal corruptions or words perverted in form or meaning, by false derivation or mistaken analogy (London, 1882), that Bombay duck

is one of a numerous class of slang expressions—the mock-heroic of the eating-house—in which some common dish or product for which any place or people has a special reputation is called by the name of some more dainty article of food which it is supposed humorously to supersede or equal. Thus a sheep’s head stewed with onions, a dish much affected by the German sugar-bakers in the East End of London, is called a German duck.

Bombil also is irrevocably bound with caste preferences in food. According to Shailaja Paik’s Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination, “While some elite Dalits found the pungent smell of Bombil nauseating, others experienced a waft of Bombil and Sukat (small dry fish) as particularly appetising. In other words, bombil-bhaakri was a delicacy for lower-class Dalits…”.

Bombill or Bombay Duck is considered to be a delicacy across many communities. Bombay has eternally romanced the Bombay Duck, and it is a favourite of almost all the ethnic communities like Malvanis.Konkanis and the Parsis.An early morning visit to Saason Dock gave me an idea of the popularity of the fish both for domestic consumption as well as export. Bombill is commonly found in stores across Canada and England and is known as Bomello.Koli fishermen in the dock have been salting and sun-scorching them on bamboo stilts called valandis for hundreds of years.These dried variety is eaten during monsoons and stewed into curries or dry-fried as an acompaniment to dal and rice. Koli fishermen smear them with Koli masala, and cook them in a coconut gravy.The Konkanis rub the fish into a vinegary chutney and grill it,sometimes stuffing it with small prawns. Some Maharashtrian communities fry it into a bhaji (fritter) while others add tamarind to the Bombill curry.

In 1795, a Parsi businessperson, Seth Cawasji,presented half a ton of dusty Bombay Duck and 30 dusty Pomfret fishes to a administrator of Bombay. Navroji Framji’s 1883 recipe book, Indian Cookery for Young Housekeepers, calls the fish “bombloes” and offers two recipes: one, a dried fish stew with tamarind, ginger-garlic, chilli and fried onion; and the second, a chilli-fry of dried bombloes cooked with turmeric, coriander, pulped tamarind and green chillies. In 1975, Parsi musician-composer Mina Kava gave musical shape to the community’s love for the fish by writing a song called Bombay Duck, which begins:”Here’s a story simple / of a duck with a little dimple / he’s the strangest little duck / this little ducky never clucks.”

Parsi cuisine has a large repertoire of dishes using Bombill like Sookhi Boomla Ni Akoori,Sookhi Boomla Ni Cutlets,Sookha Boomla ni Chutney and Tareka Boomla.Had a taste of Tarapori Patio while I was in Bombay last month. Loved the sweet sour tangy taste of the soft fish.

Managed to get an authentic recipe of Tarapori Patio from Daren Hansotia in Kolkata.Tarapori Patio is best had with khicdi,pav or bhakri. Sweet and sour in taste ,the dish originated from a village called Tarapore in Gujrat. For making the Patio one needs Bombay Duck cut into pieces. One has to grind garlic,cumin seeds and red chilli powder in a paste. In a pan in hot oil,the chopped onions are fried till golden brown. The paste is added and stir fried till oil separates. The fish pieces are added. After sauteing for a while salt and vinegar is added to the gravy. After cooking for about five minutes some vinegar soaked jaggery and water is when the gravy thickens and becomes coated to the fish it can be garnished with corriander leaves and remember to keep the flame low after the fish has been added.

Malvani and Konkani communities too have their signature dishes using Bombill. The most popular one is Bombil Fry in a crust of rava and rice flour.The crispiness can be best achieved by taking the water out of the fish perfectly.Some fry the fish whole and some prefer fillets.Other popular dishes include Bombill Kalvan which uses kokum and curry leaves apart from garlic and coconut. Bombill in Green Curry too is a popular dish.A complete Bombill meal will include crisp Bombill fries.Rasa,Sol kadi and Bhakri.

Tasting authentic Malvani and Konkani cuisine was a highpoint of my Bombay visit last month. Bombill fry at Soul Fry in Bandra stole my heart.Fillets of Bombay Duck were crisp in the rava crust.A relaxed lunch at Sadiccha next day with whole Bombill fries along with a rasa and a Sol Kadi will be remembered for long. The Bhakris were soft and when dipped in the typical Malvani gravy, they soaked in the flavours perfectly. My bucket list includes several other restaurants which I would definitely visit in my next trip. Gajaale, Highway Gomantak,Mahesh Lunch Home has to be ticked off soon enough.

Be it the Loitta Jhuri or the Shutki Loitta or the Bombill crisp Fry or the Tarela Boomla,food unites layers of diversities.Whats in a name,it may be different, but what is important is the unity of taste across the country. Bombay Duck unites disparate communities and cultures. Be it the shores of the Arabian Sea or the shores of the Bay of Bengal the Bombay Duck makes its way across regions.

Author: ranjinipinky

Always happy when it comes to food and travel.Love looking beyond the cuisine and beyond the known landscape.Food describes a person,a culture ,a nation and a psyche.Both foodscape and landscape of a place joins together to weave the history of the place.My endeavor is to travel through that history,enrich myself and evolve continuously.Be my co- traveler through this enriching experience.