Mumbai's lost world.... Vesava Koli Seafood Festival (Versova)

This post is dedicated to my friend Sassy Fork ‘s father who is in the hospital. Hope he gets and is back home soon.

This is a long post with many photos in between. To see these and more pictures head to this album in the Finely Chopped Facebook page.

The Vesava (Versova) Koli Seafood Festival is in its sixth year. Despite my interest in food, I had never heard about it till last year. Nor, had fellow Bengali and food lover (is there any other type?), Madhumita, whom I got to know through twitter. She lives pretty close to where the festival happens and yet hadn’t heard of it.

And that gets my goat. I always feel bad about how poorly we profile our country when I see the way the Singapores and the KLs of the world  make ‘love out of nothing at all’. And when rare initiatives like this happen then no one knows about it. Watch any TV show, food awards write up, article on seafood in Mumbai and you will get Gajalee, Trishna and, if you are lucky, Mahesh. The first is at least Maharashtrian food and the cuisine is Malwani. The latter two are Manglaorean.  From neighbouring Karnataka. Well who wants work hard and go beyond the obvious?

So it took my friend, who blogs as the Sassy Fork, to tell me about the Koli Sea Food festival. An attempt to show case the food and culture of the Kolis. The fisher folks who were apparently the earliest inhabitants of Mumbai. Mumbai was a set of seven fishing villages which the Portuguese gave to the British as dowry. (This is a rough round up of the lay of the land and not meant to be a historical treatise. This is a food blog after all.)
Sassy had told me about other fish festivals such as the one at Chembur, the one organised by the political party MNS at Shivaji Park and recently by the Ministry of Fisheries at BKC. My ambivalent feelings towards fish, laziness to travel far in the city to eat and distrust of carnival food ensured that I didn’t end up going to any of these.

That finally ended.Thankfully.  Madhumita, Jyotika of Follow My Recipe (an honest blog with a personal touch and some great photos) and I headed to the Versova Koli Sea Food Festival on Friday Night. Check out Jyotika's excellent post on the fish food festival.

We drove down the Costa Coffee at Versova and entered a lane which had a banner of the festival. We drove down the narrow lane which had space for just one car. Surrounded on both sides by one to two story buildings which were so ‘not Mumbai’. Madhumita and I looked out and said ‘Bijoygarh’  in unison after the colony of Post Bangladesh war settlers in our native Kolkata.
We crossed the long lane and came onto the fairground (there was parking outside). Walked in to a see a huuuuuge field. Dotted with stalls. Billions of people sitting in the middle watching the cultural show consisting of Koli Dances at a podium. We bumped into fellow food blogger, Poonam Joshi of Homemade Happiness, too and later Suren whom I know through twitter.

Madhumita in grey & Jyotika in black...ladies who shoot what they eat

Koli dances firing up the Friday Night Fever

Madhumita, Jyo and I walked towards one of the stalls. The first thing that I saw were some pomfret and  huge prawns, slathered in red masala getting barbecues. The aroma was heady and I was in a trance and immediately ordered for a plate (6 for Rs 150/ 3 USD). “Is this for someone? No? Can we have these?”
 The three of us stood in a corner, didn’t  have the patience  to go to the tables close by. But we did take out our cameras and clicked, the prawns were still searing from the flames. And then the first bite. We knew we were in the right place. The prawns were so fresh that they almost swum out of our fingers and began to sing “Sheila Ke Jawani”. The marinade red, tongue tingling, unevenly salted. Rough and heart warming.

Bombay Duck Fry

Grilled lobsters which put me in a spell

Sizzling Surmai

And so the evening went. From one stall to another. With cheerful, kind Koli ladies dishing away their fare. They were dressed in typical Koli jewellery. The women in each stall wore saris of the same colour and pattern. As if it was the IPL opening ceremony. They were fast, efficient, smiling as they fried fish...many of them speaking in pretty good English.

A Bengali malai curry like lobster curry followed. I chewed on the head of the lobsters to get every drop of the juicy manna. The way I had learnt to eat crustaceans on my mother’s lap. Stuffed crab at Rs 100 (2 USD) or so for a small crab. There was very little meat inside but the coconut and coriander, chilli and coconut masala was more intoxicating than the bluest of Indigo. And then Madhumita, said ‘follow me children’ as she pointed the bounty of crab meat by the ridges of the shell. All of this mopped up with a tortilla like rice roti. Brought to our table straight from the girdle. A couple of beers and we headed to the other side. But not before I saw a lady at a stall deep frying little batter coated spherical  things (‘balls’ sounds so wrong) and came back to the girls with a plate of burst in your mouth, Bombil pakodas
We stopped at a stall in the middle of the field. Couple of young boys selling prawn Frankies. They were churning out these Mumbai wraps at the speed of ten a minute making them difficult to photograph. The Frankie (Rs 40/ 1 usd) reminded me of the alu (potato) rolls of Karco at Calcutta’s New Market with the odd shrimp jumping joyfully in every other bite.

Lobster curry

Prawn curry

Stuffed crabs

You will rarely see fresh water loving Bengalis so happy near Sea water fish

Stuffed crabs

Table manners in Bong

Notice the uniforms in each of these stalls

The very talented Jyotika clicks away

A Frankie making record of 10 a minute

Prawn frankie

We crossed over to the other side and giggled as we saw tiny bottles of Royal Stag whiskey. A Koli lady came up, smiled and said in very good English (I am stressing this as we were in a fishing village) and said “take take, you can’t eat fish without Royal Stag”.

This was the charming Ms Devyani who sat down by us to have a bite herself. I learnt that Devyani worked with Air India. The others in her stall either sold fish to local markets or owned fishing boats which theie workers took out to the sea. She told me that the Kolis were the original residents of Mumbai. They do not have a native land or ‘gao’ to go to. This is their original land. They speak a language which is apparently different from other Maharashtrian dialects though the script is the same.

Devyani looked sad when I asked her if there were any Koli restaurants at Mumbai. There weren’t. This fair which started six years back was as an attempt to fix this. In fact she and other stall owners were present in a number of these festivals.  Devyani said that the organisers of the Versova Festival ensured that the prices of the food were affordable to the masses and questioned any steep increase in price.

The ‘Malwani’ restaurants which you find at Mumbai, the Gajalees of the world, serve the cuisine of the Malwan region of coastal Maharashtra. Devyani  said that coconut formed the base of Malwani cuisine given Malwan’s  proximity to the sea. Koli dishes, on the other hand, largely hinge on chilli, ginger, garlic... no coconuts. Except in the stuffed dishes where the stuffing consists of a coconut marinade. As I told Devyani, I look forward to the day when Mumbai gets its first Koli restaurant.

I expressed my angst against the lack of publicity of these festivals. Devyani said that the organisers did put ads in local papers such as the Times. But she felt that the festival should be held at the beginning of the month while people had fresh pay checks. I told her that they had to target the festival to those beyond locals. The treasures of Mumbai should be proudly displayed to the whole world. Shouldn’t be tucked away. 

We ate one of the most memorable dishes of the evening at Devyani’s stall. Stuffed squids. The coriander and coconut marinade was very deep and stirred your soul. The squids were cooked in oodles of the marinade in the best traditions of the Indian coastal cuisine. “You can only taste the masala, and not the mussels....but the masala is lovely” as the Italian Chef Max once told me. Yet, the squids weren’t over cooked or rubbery.
They were quite fresh and complemented the masala very well. We had a fish roe fry which was a bit too lost in the gravy, especially for Madhumita and I as we have grown up on fish roe pakoras (bora in Bengali) which are eaten straight from the pan or curried.

Devyani in the Khaki sari

Fish roe fry

Tuna pakodas

Stuffed squids which stole our hearts

Learning more about the Kolis

We stopped at one more stall on the way back to take a look at a full Koli thali or meal. Rice, rice roti, mackerel fry, non coconut based Surmai curry and mussels stuffed with coconut marinade. The ladies here were disheartened when we didn’t eat anything there but we were stuffed to the gills by then. They sportingly posed for photographs though. I did offer to come and cook Bengali preparations of fish the next day. The chirpy ladies at the stall enthusiastically asked me about what all spices I would need for that so that they could keep it ready.

Of course no Indian meal couldn't finish without a paan and the chilled (no, not seafood paans) were just what we needed.

The Koli Thali

Making plans to cook together

A life well lived

I didn’t go back the next day but do need to go back once to keep my promise. This evening was one which defined the term ‘magical’.  Warm and friendly people. Honest and fresh food. The privilege of being hosted by the natives of the city which has made you so welcome. A throw back to where it all started. It truly is ‘a wonderful life’.

The streets of the fishing village

The Koli Food Festival is on till today, 30th January. 6 PM till midnight. The crowds increased yesterday from what I understand