Bangda, Paaplet, Surmai, Rawas, Bombil, Kolambi and Mandeli are like the seven musical notes to every Mumbaikar seafood lover’s ears. Seafood finds a special place in the cuisines of many communities living in Mumbai. Be it the Parsis, Bohris, Saraswats, Kolis, East Indians, CKPs or Pathare Prabhus; fish is their soul food and the sole food they cannot live without. (Pun intended)
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Mumbai, with a 150 km long coastline mainly gets salt water fish- which include Pomfret (Paaplet), king fish (surmai), Indian salmon (rawas), Bombay duck (bombil), Lady fish (kaane), Red snapper, Tuna (kupa), Indian Mackeral (Bangda), Sea Bass, Anchovy (Mandeli), Baby shark and Sardine (Tarli), to name a few.
Rich in brain nutrients (omega 3 fatty acids), bone nutrients (vitamin D, calcium, phosphorous), protein, selenium, iron and iodine, fish are not only delicious, but also remarkably nourishing. A 100g serving of Black Pomfret (Halwa) can fulfil nearly 50% of a healthy adult’s daily Vitamin D requirements, while a 100g serving of most fish fulfil 1/3rd of daily protein requirements. Fish are a tonic for the brain, hair, skin, eyes, heart and the immune system. The Mediterranean diet pays great emphasis on fish consumption due to its cardio protective properties. It is a good option for weight watchers because it is lean meat and known to boost metabolism.
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Apart from the common prank of the elder sibling convincing their younger sibling that they were adopted from a Kolin’s (Fisher woman) basket when mom bargained for some more fish, every fish loving household has their own ritual related to buying, cooking and eating fish. A trip to the fish market on a Sunday morning is how the fish eating chronology usually starts. The fish market is not just a place. It’s an experience made of the hustle bustle, swooping crows, cats brushing past your feet, a crab or two trying to escape the basket, a bargaining match between a fisher woman and her experienced client, the peculiar seafood odour and the jingling of bangles followed by a thud as the fisher women chop the fish with their big curved knifes (Koita/Kuita). In a fish market your love for fish is not enough though. A keen eye and some bargaining skills are a must to get your share of fresh fish. Here are some pointers to help you identify fresh fish.
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- Do they look fresh? – Fresh fish has a shiny glaze on it.
- Do they smell fresh? – Some fresh fish do have a typical odour but never like rotten meat.
- Lost in the crowd? – Sometimes stale fish may be mixed in a batch of fresh fish. Smell and close scrutiny only, will help you here.
- Poke and prod – Fresh fish is firm and springs back when gently pressed. Stale fish on the other hand, leaves a dent on pressing.
- Eye lock the fish – Fresh fish have black, glassy and clear eyes, while stale fish tend to have turbid, reddish or white eyes.
- Gills up – Fresh fish have a reddish pink colour under their gills. Go ahead and lift up the gills to have a peek.
- If you are buying crabs check if they are still alive and showing mild movement.
- For clams, tightly shut ones are what you are looking for.
To make sure you can enjoy the best fish without disturbing the ecological balance, it is important to choose the right fish during the right time of the year. For example, Pomfret (Paaplet) are known to breed during the months of March, April and May while Bombay Duck (Bombil) have a longer breeding season from October to March. By not consuming fish during their breeding season, we give them a chance to replenish their population and maintain a healthy ecological balance.
In most Mumbai fish markets the Koli (fisher) women clean and chop the fish for you if you want. But you can do it yourself at home too. Here’s how-
- To begin, scrape off the scales of the fish with a knife or the knife like base of a traditional coconut scraper (Vili) and thoroughly wash it.
- Next, rest the fish on the table or cutting board (you could also continue using the coconut scraper) and cut off its head, tail and fins.
- When you chop off the head, you will be able to see its abdominal cavity.
- Remove the guts and other contents with your finger and wash it again to get rid of any blood or internal tissues.
- Now make pieces of your fish according to your cooking needs.
- Clean your fish-cleaning table immediately, collect the guts, heads, and scales, and discard them properly.
Now that you have cleaned and chopped your fish, it’s time to get cooking or to store it if you don’t have to start cooking right away. Make sure that your fish is thoroughly cleaned with water and free of any dirt, blood or internal tissues before storing. Fish need to be stored at cool temperatures at all times before cooking. If you buy fish on a Sunday morning for a hearty lunch of Malvani Fish Curry and Rice, the regular refrigerator is the place for your fish. But if you are prepping for a week long fish feast, marinate the fish in red chili powder, salt and turmeric before storing it in the deep freezer. Fish tend to have a peculiar smell and pass on their odour and micro-organisms to other foods if stored wrongly. So, place your fish in an airtight container, air tight zip lock bag or aluminium foil before placing it in the refrigerator or deep freezer.
You can shallow or deep fry your fish, cook it in a curry, steam it in a leaf, bake it, broil it, grill it, poach it or barbecue it. The most common ways in Mumbai being, shallow frying, leaf steaming and cooking in a curry. Shallow frying can be done for the whole cleaned fish or wedge shaped pieces by marinating them in some red chilly powder, masala and salt, coating it with semolina and rice flour with a generous drizzle of coconut oil until aromatic and crispy.
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For making a fish curry however, you need to prepare a delicious coconut, tomato or onion based curry and cook small pieces of fish in it. The Malvani fish curry, Chettinad fish curry, Goan fish curry, East Indian fish curry, Vindaloo fish curry, CKP fish Kalwan are all flavourful and unique in their own right.
Stuffed fish recipes have a special place in the cuisine of the west coast. Be it the Patra ni Machhi (fish cooked in a banana leaf), Recheado fish fry, Chutney stuffed fish or Malvani Bharlela Paplet (stuffed Pomfret); all recipes require you to slit the fish (usually along the abdomen) and stuff it with the varied masalas and shallow fry, deep fry or steam the fish.
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Every cooking method has a different impact on the taste, texture, nutrient profile and digestibility of the fish. For example, grilled fish has the lowest fat content along with having the highest protein content due to loss of moisture during cooking; while deep frying reduces the availability of essential amino acids (building blocks of protein).
Fish is as essential to the cuisine of the west coast, as butter and tomato are to Italian cooking. Its health benefits, flavour and aroma are what give the food of coastal India its essence.