What happens in the fish shouldn't stay in the fish market/ Lunch with a Koli Family in Mumbai/ Grandma's fish curry memories from Dhaka

Bombay duck fry at Rajini Aaji's

  • The Kolis are the fisher folks of Mumbai. They are considered to be the original, inhabitants of the city
  • Kolis are also the ones who sell fish in the fish markets of Mumbai
  • Koli food is different from Malvani food from coastal Maharashtra. I recently had a meal with the Kolis and this post is about that
  • I then spoke to my grandma about how fish was caught in Dhaka, where she grew up more than eight decades back, and wrote about that here too

A Bengali Babu and his fish market escapades

I love going to the fish markets in Mumbai. Going to the market to buy fish is a habit that I had picked up in Kolkata during my high school days. My mother would send me on Saturday evenings back then to buy fish and meat from the local Bansdroni market

Going to the fish markets here in Mumbai, is my way of being in touch with the life I have left behind. My wife, a Parsi from Mumbai, loves eating fish, and this includes the Bengali fish preparations that I introduced her to. Going to the market to buy fish and to cook it for her is something I enjoy doing even though I am not a big fan of eating fish myself. 

In fact, you would be surprised to know that not all Bengalis are obsessed with eating fish. So much for food cliches!

The fish seller from whom I used to buy fish back in the day in
Kolkata's Bansdroni market

Soon after we got married and set up house, I'd spotted a young man named Munna, who spoke Bengali and sold freshwater fish at Bandra's Pali Market. We used to buy some pretty nice rohu and kaatla from him. He shut shop years back when the market went into redevelopment. I occasionally bump into him still, but he doesn't sell fish anymore. I then tried out the Citylight Market at Mahim, and Dulal's fish shop there, but didn't find going there worth the travel. I then checked out the Khar Station Market's fish section, and that worked for me. 

Unlike in Kolkata, fish markets in Mumbai are 'manned' by women. In Kolkata, most 'maachh-alas' (fish sellers) are men. Another difference between the two cities is that the fish that you get Kolkata is primarily fresh water fish from the rivers. In Mumbai, it is salt water fish from the seas.

Luckily for me, some of the fish sellers at the Khar market sell freshwater fish too. For the past few years, I've been going to a stall at Khar run by two sisters, Poonam and Sangeeta. Their mother, Hira Bai, sits with them and she was the one who had first set up shop forty years back. Possibly before the girls were born, but I felt that it would be impolite to ask them about this. There are quite a few fresh water fish seeking Bengalis who come to the fish market and they all have their own favourite fish sellers to go to. Quality, price and consistency drive one's choice. By now, the Khar ladies have learnt the Bengali names for various fish and for the parts of those fish and the style of cutting fish that is typical to Bengalis.

Poonam (in red), Hira Bai and Sangeeta at the Khar fish market

Meet the Kolis

The ladies at the Khar fish market, and at all fish markets in Mumbai, belong to the Koli community. The Kolis constitute the fishing community of Mumbai. They are considered to be the original inhabitants of Mumbai. They traditionally live in what are the last vestiges of the fishing hamlets of the city. The Koli men go to sea to catch fish. The women then sell the fish in the market. And, as one  lady once told me with a smile, the women are the one in charge of the finances in a Koli house. And I all others too, I'd hazard.

My first interaction with the Kolis was in 2011 when I went to the Vesava (Versova) Fish Festival. The festival was then not as well known among the non-Maharashtrian community. Its popularity has spread since then and there are many more such fish festivals which happen in Mumbai during winter now. 

I remember having a lovely time interacting with the gregarious ladies at the fish stalls at the festival, where various fish preparations were on offer that night. The food seemed a bit different from what one was used to in the Malvani restaurants in Mumbai which offer food from coastal Maharashtra. The Kolis do not use as much of coconut in their food, I learnt that night, compared to those from the coast. The spices used at the stalls were not very heavy either. The fish, when fried, had minimal batter on it compared to what one usually sees in restaurants here. 

The focus at the festival seemed to be on showcasing good quality produce from the sea, and the Koli sure do have the best access to that.

Vesava fish festival, 2011

Authenticook's 'Dine With The Kolis' lunch at Rajini Aaji's

I had a mind blowing experience a couple of Sundays back, something every different from what I was used to. I actually had an opportunity to go to a Koli house that day and have a meal cooked by the family. Once again, this was at the Versova fishing village, which is about a couple of centuries old. This was at a pop up meal organised by a start up set up by a bunch of young folks which offers home dining experiences and which is called Authenticook. They'd invited me to come for the meal and I took up the offer as this was an opportunity that didn't come up everyday. 

We met, on the designated day, at the entrance to the Versova Fishing Village. They had pinned the location on Google maps which made it pretty easy to reach the place. This was the same place where  I had got off years back, the night I went to the Versova festival. I remember walking down a short distance in the dark to reach the festival that night. This time, the experience was different. We walked down narrow lanes and pavements, past single and double storied brick bungalows, with the odours of dried fish playing hide and seek with us. As we were in broad daylight, I could this time see the humble but clean surroundings around us and get a better sense of the place. While they call it a 'village', it seemed more like a suburb of a city. It reminded me of Joyoshree in Kolkata, where my granny lives.

At Rajini Aajis house led by Aneesh of Authenticook

Our destination was the house of Rajini Aaji, our host for the afternoon. She turned out to be a cuddly, sweet, round ball of a granny, with a perpetual smile on her face, but with very few words to say. Aaji means mummy. Rajini Aaji and her family own three fishing boats and this perhaps makes them a bit more affluent than the average Koli family. The house is a pucca (brick and mortar and painted) one, with a couple of stories, and a functional and clean toilet inside. The place oozed warmth, the vibe was happy and welcoming. It didn't feel hot inside (this was November) and one felt quite at ease. The house reminded me of the sort of houses which folks such as my granny stay in, and were built in Kolkata till the 1980s before apartment complexes came in vogue.

Rajini Aaji's daughters and granddaughters cooked for us that afternoon. One of her daughters, Harsha, made up for Rajni Aaji's silence with her gregariousness. 

Rajni Aaji (in green) and her family 

Our group sat down at the dining table for lunch and while we waited, Harsha showed us some of the fish which their boats had brought in the previous day, and which was kept in the fridge. She showed us a variety of fish. On display were the  more common ones such as surmai (kingfish) and pomfret, as well as fish such as baby shark, and then stingray which you will rarely see in Mumbai markets. The family told us how to identify the fish and also about their lives as a fishing community and patiently answered questions that we had. We spoke in Hindi and the Authenticook folks translated this into English for those who didn't understand. 

Harsha talked to us about their lives
While Varsha cooked inside

I asked Harsha about something my friend, Dr Kurush Dalal, had once told me about. The fact that the fish that we get in Mumbai is not really caught in the local seas and brought to the markets on the same day to be sold. That the fish is apparently caught at least ten days back before they are brought to the port. 

Harsha agreed.  She told us that the days of catching fish in the seas around Mumbai, which was once the norm, were long over. The pollution nearby drove away the fish from the coasts of Mumbai. Now the trawlers head out to as far as the Goa and Gujarat borders in search of fish over a ten day period, she said. The fish is iced, after it is caught and then brought back to Mumbai. During the monsoon months here, the fish that we get in the market comes from the Odisha coast and the South of India, while fish from here is sold at Odisha when it is stormy there.

I asked Harsha if Kolis turned vegetarian as many other Maharashtrians do, during monsoon. Not entirely, I was told. They do eat dried and salted fish during the monsoon months too apparently. 

If you live in Mumbai, you would have noticed that there are parts of the city which are often shrouded with an intense smell of fish. Well, that could very well be the resident Kolis drying and sunning their fish for the non-fishing months. If that turns you off, remember that you are guests in their city in a way.

The Koli Sunday feast

A Bengali relishes a Koli meal

We could have kept on talking but then the food arrived and it’s brilliance commanded the silence that followed. The food was ample, with seconds being given generously. The quality of the seafood used was of course brilliant. The flavours of the spices used simple and vibrant, and different from the coconut and masala excesses that one is subjected to in many of the city's seafood joints, which offer food from the Malvan coast of Maharashtra. The food at Rajini Aaji's showed that if done with love and care, and with a decent amount of skill, then home food can often trump restaurant food in terms of both the joy it gives and the quality it offers.

Mori or shark fritter with tomato chutney

We started off with generous portions of individual plates of mori or baby shark pakoras with a tomato and grated coconut chutney on the side made specially for the occasion. The pakora by itself had a pretty neutral taste. What really brought the dish alive was the tomato chutney which seemed to be bursting with tales of many a celebratory Koli meal. Harsha said that they didn't want to do a standard ketchup with the fry and hence made this 'secret' Koli chutney for the Authenticook lunches. She was quite the chatty and lively hostess.

The Koli thali. Clockwise: Bombil fry, prawn and potato curry,
 tistrya/ clam masala, Bhakri 

The rest of the meal was brought on a thali. The food that they served in these pop up meals, I was told, usually reflects what the 'catch of the day' in their boats was. There was a week where they did a squid kheema for every event apparently as the boats had brought back a big haul of squids. This time, the seafood on offer was more 'regular'.

There was a beautiful Bombil or Bombay Duck fry. The fish was served plump and juicy and different from the crisp ones served in Malvani restaurants. The fish in the latter is batter coated and fried crisp and flat and that's achieved by first placing a stone on the fresh fish to squeeze out the water, before frying it, from what I am given to understand. The core remains soft and jelly-like still. 

At Rajini's, the bombil had been fried in its natural form, just as the Parsis love to do so, and without the water being squeezed out and hence the fish remained plump after frying. Coincidentally the Kolis and the East Indians and Pathare Prabhus are considered to be the original inhabitants of Mumbai, and the Parsis are said to have come next.

We also had tisrya (clams) in the thali. You get tisrya in Malvani and Gomantak places in town too. The cooking style in coastal India is very different from that used for shelfish in far eastern countries such as Thailand and Malaysia  or France or Spain in Europe. Here the shellfish is covered in a thick masala and you can't really taste the meat. Masalas played a leading role in the tisrya at Rajni Aaji's too. However, the masalas had a certain lightness and freshness to them, which ensured that the clam meat got its say too in the final analysis, and the meat was ample for sure. There was a dominant garlic motif to the masala which reminded me of the butter, parsley and garlic dominated escargot (snails) of France in a strange way. It's fascinating to see how food connects us all.

The other dish that we had was a prawn curry where there were beautiful prawns, juicer than the best of fish market gossip sessions, cooked with potatoes in a tomato and onion curry, and which had no coconut in it. Very different from the prawn curries that you get in Malvani restaurants which are  coconut based and use smaller prawns. I was also impressed by how well the prawns were cooked. They were not over-cooked at all and tasted juicy and fresh. The prawn curry tasted almost exactly like the onion and tomato based prawn curry that my mother makes and which I have tried to emulate at home, with some success, as my wife likes it too.

Memories of my mom's Bengali prawn curry seeped into
this Koli prawn curry

We were also served bhakri, a rice flour based flat bread, to whose dough some local millets had been added. There was rice as well. Surti Kolam short grained rice. It was cooked jut the way I like it, where each grain is firm and separate. I had my prawn curry with that and the bhakri with the tisriya.

For dessert there was a grated coconut mix, similar to what is added to modaks. The Kolis apparently do not have a wide repertoire of sweets. 

The meal turned out to be one of the nicest I have had in terms of the balance of spices, the freshness of ingredients and the lovely wholesome feel it left you behind with, and added to which was the knowledge that it is not a meal that one can easily enjoy or have access to. 

If you leave all that aside, then there was still no denying that this was one hell of a good meal

The coconut dessert

While at their house, I noticed the warmth with which Rajini and her family treated the Authenticook team and the feeling of respect and love was visibly mutual. The scene reminded me a bit of the times when I go to Fort to Bohri Mohalla, and the warm welcome that we receive at the small restaurants there when I take people on food walks. This warmth is what made the experience special at Rajni Aji's. Apart from the great food and wonderful stories of course.

Fish market tales

Once lunch was done, I went with Aneesh of Authenticook to the Versova fishing docks which is located next door to the Versova fishing village. The market opens at 3 pm he told me. This is different from Sassoon Docks in Colaba which is an early morning market.  3 PM is when the fishing boats dock and the fish is unloaded from from the boats and sold in the Versova Wholesale Fish Market.

Fish galore including varieties you don't see in local markets

Hello, I love you won't you tell me your name
The buyers circle in

Varsha drives a tough bargain for her fish

The market lives up once they boats dock

I spotted Harsha, Varsha and Triveni, the three sisters who had cooked for us and who had hosted us on at Rajini Aaji's, at the market. Their family, as I had mentioned earlier, owns three fishing boats and one boat had just come in with lot fish. The boat was coincidentally named 'Rajini', after their mother. The sisters were auctioning the fish to wholesale buyers and had set up a small stall for retail customers too. Varsha and Triveni, who till a couple of hours back quietly fried fish for us in the kitchen, with smiling faces and without speaking a word, had transformed into different women in the market. They were driving some pretty hard bargains with the wholesale buyers who were all men. While most of the fish was sold to the wholesalers, a few of the Koli women, including Rajni's daughters set up stalls to sell fish to retail buyers too.

Harsha is famous the for fish at her stall at the Versova Fish Market

I bought two massive pomfrets from Harsha, who whispered 'special price' to me, as I was part of the lunch group. I also bought a pair of mackerels from the stall next to her's. I came home and requested our cook Banu of #BunkinBanu fame, who had come to work after a two day break, to make a coconut based curry with the pomfret and that turned out great. We cooked the remaining fish over the next couple of days and the quality of the fish was truly excellent as was borne out by each dish that we made with it. 

The fish curry that our cook Banu made

When I later put up a picture from the fish market on Instagram, Soumitra Velkar, who is a Pathare Prabhu home chef apart from being a finance professional, recognised Harsha from the picture and said that she sells the best pomfret, surmai and rawas in the suburbs.

When granny was a little girl at Dhaka

A couple of days after I went to the Versova market, I phoned and chatted with my granny. She is 90 years old and lives in Kolkata. I asked her about her health. She’s been better, she told me. 

Few things are as cruel as old age as I’ve learnt over the years. I wanted to take her mind of her #AbscondingAyah woes and urinary infection worries, and thought I will talk of something else. Earlier during the day, I had started a Twitter discussion about how we Bengalis tend to fry the fish before we add them to curries and how Bengali restaurants here tend to fry them excessively compared to what we do at home. During the course of the Twitter chat, I had wondered what the origin of the practise of frying the fish first first was. So I thought I will ask my granny, who is the eldest person that I know about this during our call. 

Let me tell you about my granny, whom we call Didu, first. She was born in Dhaka. After her marriage, she moved to Allahabad and then to Delhi with my grandpa, before they settled in Kolkata after grandpa retired. Now grandpa is no more and she largely lives by herself.

During a visit to granny's in July 2017

I asked Didu about how fish was prepared when she was growing up in Dhaka. Didu's touching nine now  as I told you earlier, but suddenly it seemed as if I could hear the tinkle of a 9 year old’s voice on the voice as she began to recall and recount tales from her childhood. She told me about a world she had left behind, her memory suddenly vivid, her voice firm and her hearing sharp again. 

She told me about how the month of November was when the river near her house at Dhaka would be full of fish with water levels going down. Didu's family owned a boat  and the men in the family would apparently push the boat down into the river till is submerged under the water where they anchor it.  They would pull the boat a few days later and apparently many fish would be trapped in the boat and would be jumping in it, said Didu with childish glee.

Shaatlano or shallow frying fresh and fatty fish

The trapped fish would be cut, cleaned and then smeared with salt, turmeric and mustard oil. It would then placed on a pan on a fire by the women in her house, her grandmother, mother and aunts. The fish was apparently of such good quality and so fatty that it would not stick to the flat bottomed pan ("non non-stick," she clarified) and the fish could easily be turned around. This fish would then be added to curries which were prepared the moment the fish was ready and then eaten fresh with steamed rice. Only hilsa might occasionally be added directly to curries or steamed without shallow frying it first she said. You would add mustard or other strong spices to Ilish only if the ilish said my granny, sounding perhaps like her granny did when Didu  was little.

Before we we signed off, didu fondly remembered that how the locals would often come and give my granny’s family fish and other produce. ‘My father was a doctor, and doctors were respected in villages then,’ she said. 

At the end of the call, I told myself that I must call didu more often, I don’t know if she felt better after our chat, but I sure did as I am sure she did too.

Didu's story of the abundant fish in the river next to her house in Dhaka came back to me when I was reading my well thumbed copy of Chitrita Banerjee's "Hour of the Goddess" once again a few nights back.  Ms Banerjee mentions that Bangals, Bengalis from east Bengal such as us, eat fish more frequently than ghotis (Bengalis from West Bengal) do. This is because the larger number of rivers that runs through East Bengal (Modern Bangladesh) which makes the supply of fish abundant.

A fan boy moment with Ms Chitrita Banerjee at The Times Lit Fest
in 2014

Shadow lines

The fishing dock of Versova and the Arabian Sea that kisses it, might seem a world far removed from the fish markets of Bansdroni in Kolkata, around which I had grown up, and the rivers swarming with fish in the rivers around Dhaka, where my granny's childhood was spent. Yet, perhaps they are not that disconnected, at least not in my life it seems.  During the phone call with my grandmother, I learnt that my grandparents had first come to Mumbai when my grandpa had come for a conference when he worked in the Indian Railways. My granny, and my youngest aunt, who was a little girl then, had accompanied him. This is before I was born and even before my mom was married.

That’s when my relationship with Mumbai started I guess, and here I am today, leading a life where various flavours have blended in, that of my ancestors from East Bengal, my early years in the UK and Iran and my nascent and subliminal memories from there, then the influence of Kolkata where I grew up, and now of Mumbai, with its many cultures, which has become home for me. 

I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful mix of masalas in my life.

Do check out these phone videos that we shot that day:

Lunch at Rajni Aaji's:

The Versova fish market:

Do check out this video that the folks at Authenticook did on the meal where I share my views on the afternoon

Do also read:

Note: I was a guest of Authenticook and this is where you can find out more about the Koli meal and book it too