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June 2006

Fishy Business- An illustrated glossary of Indian Fish - 1. Bombay Duck


Fishbutton_3 Moving home means major upheaval in India. More so when the move is from one state to another.  Beside the usual challenges one has to face, like packing and unpacking, finding an appropriate place for everything, setting up the kitchen from scratch, finding new schools, and new doctors and dentists and friends, there is one more important, basic necessity: acquiring a quick knowledge of the local language in order to feed one's family.

I mean, try finding the word for nutmeg in Chennai, red snapper in Cochin, lotus seeds in Calcutta, or bottle gourd in Chandigarh. You would have to be a walking Tower of Babel.

Many Indian cookbooks give a cursory nod in the direction of this problem by adding a glossary of ingredients in different languages at the end of the book. Most prove to be vastly inadequate, if not entirely misleading. And let me tell you from experience, a spice by any other name does not taste as sweet. In fact, it can be positively ghastly.

Supermarkets, where one can identify everything by sight, do not exist in many towns and cities. One has to depend on the small, but well stocked, general store, where everything is out of sight and will be produced if asked for by the right name. So this knowledge of the local name for ingredients becomes critical.

My biggest problem has been with fish. In the early days of my cooking years it was easy enough when I walked through the 5.a.m. catch at Sassoon Docks in Bombay, picking up a kilo or more of prawns from a mound here, and a couple of pomfret from another mound there. The fisherwomen selling the fish had no weighing scales, and it was all an approximate amount, with prices negotiated on the spot. They found it quite amusing to sell small quantities to me, being more used to the wholesale buyers who generally came each morning and bid for one fisherman's entire catch.
I did not always know the name of the fish, and learned about the taste and the way it could be cooked through sheer trial and error. Some years later we moved to London and I had no idea what to ask the fishmonger. A fish that tastes like pomfret? The closest thing to surmai (by then, already my favourite fish)? By the time I got to know my fish facts we were in Delhi or some other part of India, where the process began all over again.
A moveable feast is not as easy as it sounds.
For all those who have suffered from life on the move, or even for those who travel for pleasure and would like to know what to ask for, or what sea creature they are about to ingest, here is the first in a 10-part series of an illustrated glossary of some of the commercial fish of India.

Bombay Duck all in a Row

I must begin with Bombay Duck, which, with its overbite, is possibly one of the most determinedly ugly fish ever seen. Commonly known as Bombil in Marathi and Oriya, Bamalohor and Nehare in Bengali, Bumla and Gulchi in Gujerati, Coco-mottah in Telegu,Vanharavasi in Tamil, it is also known by different names in other countries. Bumalo in Spain, Bumblim in Portugal, Bummalo in Germany, Tenaga-mizutengu in Japanese and Bombay Duck in most other European and Scandinavian countries.

This fish constitutes a major part of the total catch in India, and most of it comes from the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra, Gujerat and Saurashtra. Bombay Duck or Harpodon nehereus is also caught in substantial quantities in the Bengal estuaries and on the Andhra and Orissa coastlines in Masulipatnam and Jaffrabad. Some of it is sold fresh, but, as it is a very soft fish, it is susceptible to spoilage, so much of it is sun dried. A common sight in all fishing villages along the Maharashtrian coast are the ropes strung on bamboo poles where they are hung by the teeth. The familiar smell of drying fish follows you when walking on the beaches along the western coast.

Its somewhat misleading name is supposed to have come from the fact that the dried fish was carried, in the days of yore, by the Bombay Mail train and stank its way through the entire journey, gaining the train and its goods some notoriety. Dak being the Hindi word for Mail, Bombay Dak (i.e. Duck) became the name of the fish.

Dried Bombay Duck for Sale

It is such a favourite amongst Maharashtrians that one well known Maharashtrian cricketer was named Bombay Duck for his seven test zeroes against Australia. Bombay duck is very popular among the CKP community. I am grateful to Deepa Chitre for the following recipe, which is a customary way to cook this fish.

8-10 fresh Bombil ( Bombay Duck (), cleaned and cut into 2 inch pieces,
6 medium size potatoes, preferably round in shape,
3 tablespoons garlic paste
1 tablespoons red chili powder,
1/2 tbsp haldi (turmeric)
1 tablespoon salt
5-6 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves,
4-5 chopped green chilies (to taste),
5 tbsp fresh coconut grated,
4-5 tbsp oil

Thoroughly wash the slices of Bombay Duck in running water. Clean and scrub the potatoes(they will be used with the skin).
Dry the fish and coat the slices with a mixture of garlic paste, chili powder, haldi and salt.
Cut the potatoes into thin slices. Coat with haldi, chili powder, salt, coriander leaves, green chilies and grated coconut.
Put together the potatoes and Bombay Duck, and let the mixture marinate for 1 hour.
Heat oil in a thick bottomed vessel , or kadhai. Add the potatoes and fish and let it all cook on a low flame. Initially toss the mixture (instead of stirring), to ensure that the oil spreads through the entire mixture. (The pieces of fish break very easily if stirred.)
Cover and cook till the potatoes are done. Staunchly resist the temptation to open the lid and stir.

While serving take care that the fish pieces do not break.
Serve hot. Do not reheat.

Next fish online:

Ref:Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2006.FishBase.
World Wide Web electronic publication., version (05/2006).

Patta Gobi Bhaji- Cabbage and Capsicum vegetable


Boiled cabbage is, perhaps, the most unappetising of vegetables. Yet it remains a firm favourite in every Maharastrian home. Perhaps this simple but delicious recipe is the reason cabbage is one of the staples on the menu.

Cabbage 'n' Capsicum / Bund Gobi Bhaji


1 small head of cabbage.
4 simla mirch (green peppers/ capsicum).
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 heaped teaspoon rai (mustard seeds)
1 green chilli , chopped fine (optional)
1/2 teaspoon haldi (turmeric)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon gur (jaggery) or sugar.

Shred the cabbage as fine as possible. Slice the peppers into long strips.

Heat the oil in a wide pan. When hot put in mustard seeds and as they pop add the green chilli, the salt and the turmeric. As you add the turmeric immediately pour in the cabbage and green peppers.Stir well till all the cabbage becomes a light yellow.Add the gur or sugar and stir again. Cover tightly and cook on medium to low heat for about 7 minutes till cabbage is done.
Serve hot.

Soy Phirnee- Soy Milk and Saffron Dessert

Soy and Saffron Dessert

My first IMBB entry in a very long time. Hosted by Reid of onekinegrindz from Hawaii, it is a combined SHF20 and IMBB 27 event entitled "The Joy of Soy" or, as Alberto, author of the incomparable Il Forno, puts it in his announcement of the event 27+20=47 soy beans.

This is from a recipe developed by The Maharashtra State Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology and published in a booklet printed by Chetran Foods i.e. friend Ranjit Pal, the grand old man of Tofu. He has done so much to popularise the use of soya bean products in Indian cuisine, at first in his capacity as director of the Maharashtra Agro and Fruit Process Corporation and later when he started a tofu manufacturing plant and made tofu available for the first time to consumers in Pune. He sometimes holds lunch parties where each and everything on the menu is made from either soy milk, soy curd, tofu, or soy HPF (Okara). You wouldn't know it as each dish tastes entirely different.

(I have made a few changes to the original recipe in both procedures and additions ).


  • 30 gms basmati rice ground into a rice powder
  • 100 gms sugar
  • 500 ml.. soy milk
  • 2 shelled green cardamoms, powdered.
  • 3 pistachios and 3 almonds
  • A pinch of saffron

Soak the saffron in a tablespoon of warm soya milk.
Add a few tablespoons of water to the rice flour and make it into a paste.
Blanch the nuts in a hot water, remove the skin, cut into slivers and toast.
Boil the soy milk and add rice paste and sugar. Stir continuously to prevent lumps.
Cook on a low flame till the mixture becomes thick and has a custard-like consistency.
Add powdered cardamom and the saffron. Stir well.
Pour mixture into four clay or glass bowls.
Garnish with the nuts and set in the fridge.
Serve cold.

Howzzat for a nice, healthy and easy dessert.