Don’t cry fowl, it’s not a duck

It’s a Bombay Duck!

Wandering down memory lane with Bombay Ducks, or ‘Bombils’ as they are locally known, is not your conventional romantic story but it is a story that has to be told.

It is a story about love, a story about excess, and its main ingredient is passion. And if being driven to gluttony is a sin, then this is it.

It usually begins with a craving for the fish in question, that leads me down the small by lanes of Bombay.  Yes, you are not going to find this humble fish in the swanky 5 star set. Look for the small restaurants that boast Malvani (food from the seaside paradise of Malvan on the Konkan coast of India) or Gomantak cuisine (the traditional cooking of the Saraswat community of Goa). That’s where you will find it transcends from a mere smelly fish to a gourmet’s delight.

Lightly fried is the way I like it best. One bite and the outer crispiness melts into a soft mushy, yet juicy delight-filled mouthful that dissolves all other desires in its ecstasy. Greed often gets the better of me and in my enthusiasm to finish the just fried Bombils in my plate all at once often leads to gentle burns in my mouth, but what is a little pain when you have so much joy?

Typically, the Bombils are flattened under a stone to remove all the excess moisture from them, then coated in semolina or ‘rava’ and fried. But Britania Restaurant at Fort (+91 22 2261 5264) does a very interesting Irani/Parsi version. They don’t flatten it, but use it whole. It is then dipped in an egg batter and deep fried. The crispy outside gives way to succulent fleshy goodness that makes me go back again and again and again.

Some restaurants like Gajalee (+91 22 2495 0667) and Jai Hind (+91 22 2430 4799) do a variation of Bombay Duck that is stuffed with either prawns or crabs or sometimes both. While it’s tasty for sure, but somehow reducing the Bombay Duck to a mere ‘roll’ degrades it.

Another Bombay Duck preparation that drives me into raptures is the ‘Koli’ style Bombay Duck Curry. Made by fisher folk, this dish is a rarity on menus and only once have I had it in a restaurant – Viva Paschim at Worli Naka, now unfortunately closed. The recipe, which the chef refused to give me, uses fresh Bombay Ducks cooked in a fiery curry. Served over rice, it reduced me to tears of joy.

In the dried form, the Bombay Duck begins to transcend truly to the next level for the gourmand. One pungent bite later you will realise that the brittle crystalline texture has crumbled and is then followed by a wave of the taste of the ocean as the salt and the sea cascade across your taste buds. The closest experience would be similar to say, the effect of some strong cheese hitting the edge.

Dry Bombay Duck finds it way into my heart in many ways but two forms really stand out. The fried version, marinated with a lot of fiery spices, is a great snack with any drink. And the pickled version is a great accompaniment with a rice and curry.

So get out of your Sunday morning languor and hop across to your nearest fish market and stock up on Bombay Duck. Just follow these simple recipes and take a few steps towards salvation. And depending upon which school of philosophy you follow, each of these recipes has a different pathway to Moksha. Enjoy.

India Boating, February ’08


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