Shirin Mehrotra writes about dried bombil, wild greens and other monsoon pantry staples in Maharashtra’s fish-eating communities.
September 2004, on my very first day in the city of Mumbai, I am greeted by the strong, unfamiliar stench of something rotting. A few days later, I discover the source of this smell — bombil, or Bombay duck, being dried by the shores. Later, when I speak to Anjali Koli a food blogger and home cook, she explains that decay is an integral part of the drying process of bombil, a delicacy for many communities of Mumbai. Anjali belongs to one such community — the Kolis, a native fishing community in Mumbai. For the most part of the year, Koli meals are centred around fresh catch from the sea. But during aagot or the monsoon, their pantry is stocked with a variety of ingredients called aagoticha samaan, where sukka mavra or dried fish is the key ingredient.
The Kolis salt, dry and preserve fish all through summer, and eat it when deep-sea fishing is out-of-bounds during the peak of monsoon rains – which also coincides with the breeding season for most varieties of fish. “We apply crystalline sea salt to medium-sized fish like ghol and surmai, and sun-dry them. Vakti or ribbon fish is dried without being salted, while baga is cut into pieces, salted and then dried,” explains Anjali. Khare or anchovies are also dried along with prawns of different sizes – jawla, sukat and sode. The dried fish is typically fried and eaten with dal and rice, or cooked in kanji, a Koli-style curry made with coconut. Certain kinds of dry fish are cooked with vegetables like bottle gourd and ivy gourd, to temper the strong smells. The Kolis also eat more vegetarian food during the monsoon, especially in the fasting month of Shravan. However, fish is never completely missing from their diet.
Eating dried fish during monsoon is not limited to the Kolis — most of the fish-eating communities of the Konkan region — Konkani Muslims, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus, Saraswat Brahmins, all switch to eating preserved fish. “We make suka bombil with baby methi, baingan with sode, and generally cook dried fish with whatever greens are available,” says Soumitra Velkar who runs a Pathare Prabhu food pop-up and home-delivery service in Mumbai.
Seasonal greens also become the hero of the dish during this season. Shevla or dragon stalk yam, available for a few short weeks during the monsoon, is a Pathare Prabhu favourite and generally cooked with dried prawns. Raan bhaji or phodshichi bhaji, wild greens from the tribal areas, are also popular. “These greens (raan bhaji) can only be foraged, and are a must-eat at least once during the season because of their nutritional value,” recommends Dr. Mohsina Mukadam, professor and food historian who belongs to the Konkani Muslim community. On a recent trip to Van Vadi, a forest collective in Neral, I sampled some of these seasonal greens that included wild variety of amaranth, wild colacassia leves, ulshya, bafali (wild greens from the coriander family), gidvel, nagvel, and a few more. Most of these are stir-fried with garlic, using very minimal spices.
There are also a few food-related rituals that are part of preparing for the monsoon. “Storing sea salt is a big activity for the Kolis,” says Anjali. Summer is peak earning season for the community, and salt is purchased in huge quantities. This salt is used to preserve fish, and also to preserve small mangoes that are brined in large terracotta pots, to make amboshi cha loncha (mango pickle). Amboshi, salted and dried mango, is another monsoon staple. “In older times the Agri community would make the amboshi, and the Kolis would barter with them, exchange dried fish for preserved mangoes,” Anjali explains. “We use amboshi in our curries as a souring agent, instead of kokum, during the monsoon,” she adds. Dried beans like vaal or field beans, vatana or white peas, kala chana and other pulses, almost always paired with dried fish or gourds, are cooked aplenty during the fasting season. “In our house, we make birda or kadwe vaal which is eaten with rice bhakri and chutney, made out of curry leaves,” says Dr. Mukadam. “A gruel made with horse-gram flour is another monsoon speciality, known to be very nutritious,” she adds.
This is also the time when pickles and papads are consumed. Papads are usually made in homes, and vary from community to community. Mirgund, or poha che papad, are a Koli speciality, typically eaten with a vegetarian meal, and a side of deep-fried dry fish. Konkani Muslims knead their papad with onion water and cumin seeds, adding aniseed for a bit of extra flavour.
Back home, I settle down to a simple lunch of dal and rice, with a side of Koli mango pickle that Anjali gave me as a parting gift. Dried fish may be an acquired taste for many, but until then, for the less adventurous, I can promise there is no meal that can’t be improved with a little amboshi cha loncha.
Shirin Mehrotra is a freelance food writer and travels to explore regional food. Food history and culture interest her, and she's willing to try everything at least once.
Banner image by Anjali Koli.
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