Early morning walks in the city that never sleeps will not disappoint. Walk to one of the fishing ports like Sassoon Dock, Bhaucha Dhakka or Uran and the sound and smell will assault your senses.
You can be forgiven for thinking that you have entered a fish market, because, well, you have. It’s a fish-lovers’ delight — teeming with surmai (kingfish), mori (shark), rawas (salmon), mandeli, prawn, mackerel, kane (ladyfish), pomfret, crab and, of course, the legendary bombil (Bombay duck).
The fresh catch makes its way from these ports to the fish markets and roadside vendors and finally into kitchens where it’s dunked in coconut curries, steamed in banana leaves, coated with masala or just plain fried.
While prawns, pomfrets, crabs, surmai, rawas and bombil are tasty in their own way, ask any local and they will tell you about the spicy rechead bangda (mackerel stuffed with masala), banguleos (baby mackerels), the small bony mandeli that can be eaten whole, the tisreo (tisreo) eaten in a dry coconut gravy, deep-fried calamari (squid), kane or muddoshi (ladyfish), pedve (small sardines) and even the local caviar — the crunchy fried gabholi (fish roe).
Local and global
Or you could try the ongoing SevenSenses Seafood Dinners at Saptami, where Holiday Inn guests can choose their fresh catch of the day from an array of bombil, mandeli, halwa, white pomfret, surmai, red snapper, sea bass, tiger prawns, bekti, lobster, squid and octopus, and have it prepared the way they like it. “We want to popularise the local and international fish that is available in the city,” says Gaurav Malhotra, sous chef, Holiday Inn. And while the locals prefer trying the lobster or squid, it is the foreign guests who are curious about local varieties like mandeli and bombil.
The outstanding favourites, so far, have been the bombil, prawns, tiger prawns and lobsters.
Ask housewife Manisha Dhanu, who does catering for Koli food, and she will tell you that her most popular items are pomfret, prawns, bangda, surmai and halwa.
“Prawns are an all-time favourite, in any form, be it plain fried, in a curry or with rice,” she says. But in the last three years since she started cooking out of her home, she has managed to introduce mushi (small shark) and mandeli in her menu as well.
The lesser known fish
It’s a scene that is replicated at most popular eating places in the city. No matter the variety on offer, some fish are the perennial favourites. This is what Deepa Awchat, master chef and CEO of Diva Maharashtracha, Goa Portuguesa, and Dakshin Culture Curry, wants to change. Born and brought up in Goa, she has introduced fish like chonak (white snapper), tamoshi (red snapper), palu (perch), lep (sole) and shevte (grey mullets) at all her restaurants.
“Whenever we introduce a new fish, we send it complimentary to all tables, urging guests to try it out. And more often than not, they get hooked,” says Awchat.
If it is new, innovative and well presented, even the least known fish can become popular. At the recently launched Indian Harvest at Chembur, Satyen Dasondi and his wife Meher have a dish called minuted tilapia (a river water fish) with coconut crusted prawns.
“Tilapia is easily available but generally not served in restaurants. It’s a little bony but very tasty and light,” explains Dasondi, adding that the rawas and prawn biryani are also new dishes that are becoming popular.
“It is only the seafood specialty places that give you variety,” says Meldan D’Cunha, proprietor and director of Soul Fry Casa and Tavira, respectively. D’Cunha makes a daily morning trip to Mahim market to get his fish for the day. “People come to our restaurant to eat fish of different varieties prepared in different variations,” he says. His catch of the day could be anything from bangda, bombil, rawas, kane, calamari, mori, and ghul to tuna, mussels and oysters.
“Whatever fish is available in the city you can get it here,” says Francis Fernandes, owner of Fresh Catch at Mahim. Having started his eatery 10 years back on the strength of his mother’s recipes, Fernandes has seen the popularity of fish catch on in the past few years due to “health reasons and the absolute proliferation of places offering fresh fish”.
A Karwar native, Fernandes’ calamari, tisreo, kane and mussels are very popular among the “Konkan coast crowd” whereas others prefer the bombil, pomfret and surmai.
“The coastal cuisine in Maharashtra takes seafood to another level and Malvani food is the most experimental,” says Dipti Soonderji Mongia, one of the founders of The Budding Gourmet, a website that aims to demystify global cuisine.
Mongia who has visited most of the specialty restaurants swears by the tisreo at Trishna, the haryali lobster at Excellensea and the shark curry at Sindhudurg. Walk into favourites and homely places like Panghat at Borivli, Saayba in Bandra, Apoorva at Fort, the various Gomantak outlets, or Bharat Lunch Home (Excellensea) and you know you have reached seafood heaven.
“Most of these places have been around for ages and their flavour and style of cooking is unmatched," she says.
And hardcore seafood lovers will not mind the cramped seating, the smell of fish, seeing the dish prepared in from of them or even digging in with their hands.
As Gomantak regular and lawyer Amba Salelkar sums it up, “I love places that don’t give you crab cutters when they serve you crab,” she says. Point well noted.