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


Mumbai Paused said…
After seeing these imaages, I have a thought. Probably, the best way to shoot Indian food is to get in a bit of the life that surrounds it, like you have done here in many of the images. Bangles or the colourful Koli women, beer can, camera. They all seem to add "spice".

As for the food, I had been to the Fish Festival in Bandra, last month and what you need is a big stomach! I also the like the way the smell of fish clings to you. Not sure if many people will like that though. But it's the smell of the lovely ocean!
Nishant said…
Brilliant images! Have always known abt the festival but never visited it once :(. Looks like I am going to miss it this year as well :(

I did get to try the fish and prawns (i think it was the same frankie boys) last year and it was wonder and cheap! (someone had got it in the office)

It is when you go to these fairs is when you know the real price of sea food!
Unknown said…
hey thanks for the sweet mention. This was a lovely evening. I think we should have royal stagged as well. I loved that we were amongst the last people to leave. Next year you are cooking with the women and I am photographing that.
Unknown said…
Also like what Mumbai Paused pointed out- your pics are very alive. Something I am going to incorporate in my photo taking as well. :)
Xanthe said…
Wonderful stuff... wish I was there! Xanthe
PA said…
Drooooooling! :)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Mumbai Paused...glad you liked the photos. Great coming such an excellent photographer. Indian food is not plated well. The back ground helps

@Nishant: Hope you made it today

@Curry Spice: Love the photos on your blog. And the post. Linked it here. Thrilled if you found the photos here good :)

@Xanthe, you just would have loved it

@PA: thanks :)
krist0ph3r said…
ah dang, if only you had posted it 4 hours earlier, i'd have read it before i set off for my sunday socializing, and have ended my day at this awesome place!

looks like my heaven will have to wait for another year :D
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Oops, i wanted to post about it on Saturday morning itself but was a bit fish lagged. Did tweet and write about it on FB though
Anonymous said…
Tantalizing pictures and write-up! Well done!

Bergamot said…
Wow what an array of fish... tempting. Wish I could have a bite of the tandoori pomfet.
Unknown said…
Glad you'll enjoyed the sea food.
The sari's in similar color / design is called "THAAT" in Marathi. Yes, the Koli's are the original residents of Mumbai along with the East Indians. I am an East Indian married to a Koli!
Hope you'll had fun and come again next year. Yes, we wouldn't mind having sea food the Bengali way! :)
Sharmila said…
Just what I needed on a veg Monday.
Thought of asking you how long this will be on for ... and then saw the last date at the end of the post. :-(
Lovely snaps Kalyan.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thanks Rita :)

Bergamot, time hopefully :)

@Selma, thanks for sharing this. I guess between you and your husband you are as original Mumbai as one gets :) Incidentally there is a type of Bengali cotton sari called 'taant'

@Sharmila, had quite a few veg dinners while K is away. 2 I think!
Anjali Koli said…
Loved loved loved this post! You have captured not just the festival beautifully but also given the required brief on Kolis. I am one myself. One of my readers led me here. It takes a Bengali (for the love of fish) to appreciate a Koli!
Anonymous said…
Do you realize that you have just seduced us all by posting this??!! seriously .. this fish fest post is up there with those crimes. And the pictures... you knew exactly what you were doing, didn't you!! How did this even go past the censor boards?? Man, you ARE a true blue foodie. One does not become a foodie by just loving food and stuffing face. You need to entice it, dance with it and make love to it. And you have done it all!!

Great pics, nice write-up and a lovely blog. Keep going.

This blog might interest you :

- Manu
Pinku said…
finally managed to read the post today to the end...yesterday had to go off mid way cause was salivating so much.


All of it looks so lovely, affordable and fun but sadly am just too far off for anything like this.

Had a plate of grilled prawns wrapped in a sliver of bacon last week... were nice but if you compared the price and size (of the prawns) u start feeling miserable. some six odd prawns for about 600 hundred bucks that too ones u wouldnt want to call lobsters.
Scarlett said…
You increased the crowds at the festival, Mr Celebrity Blogger :)

Hope your finger is healing well. And it's really about time you got your own food show on TV :)
Anonymous said…
That food all looks amazing. Wish I could have some right now!
Miri said…
Wow - thanks for sharing this> i do believe that the wealth of regional cuisines we have is often lost in the Butter Chickens of the world. This seems like a fantastic opportunity to taste authentic regional home food cooked!
Ushnish Ghosh said…
Dear Kalyan
Simply awesome ...Just feel like landing there
Ghosh kaku
Sassy Fork said…
Thanks Knife!! Dad was so happy to hear about your dedication.He is now home and says you will have to cook him all this stuff!
Reading this post made me feel I was there! Brilliantly worded and heart capturing!
shobita K said…
Mmmm mmmm mmmm! Wish I was there. But I am not sure I would have been able to eat all that food. When I see all those food shows I often wonder how people manage to eat so much. There must be an art to it.
Great photos and great job bringing it all to life.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Anjali, thanks. Always a responsibility when one is writing about another's culture. Glad this passed muster

@Hey Manu, thanks. I started reading your comment and wondered what did I do again. Then it struck me :)

@Pinku, this is probably why fine dining leaves me cold these days. Hope it's not a phase

@Scarlett, even i won't be so presumptuous but yes the fingers now good :)

@spiceandmore it was quite a feast. Hope you make it to one someday

@Miri, hope that there are more such initiatives

@Ghosh Kaku, so why wait? :)

@Sassy: thanks and thanks for telling us about this. Glad to know that uncle's better

@Shobita, there were 3 of us so we got to sample quite a bit. i doubt if international reviewers eat everything on offer. Just as i am sure that Indian reviewers do. The girth says it all
This comment has been removed by the author.
what a great write up .. the pictures look mouth watering ..chanced upon your blog recently .. loving every bit of it ..
kaniska said…
lovely stuff. very vivid. very visual. to paraphrase pink floyd, wish i were there. do i live in the wrong city? often wonder.
siba said…
This year January 20/21/22
Unknown said…
Vesava food festival had variety of dishes, but the prices OMG all dishes were above 250 - 300 I'am talking of the gravy dishes and the quantity not worth the price. Like a stuffed squid curry was 250/- a plate with one big squid and one small. The big one was about 3 " big.
Hey... this was one helluva super blog! Well written indeed! Gr8 pics too.

Sadly couldn't mk it to the festival this year too!