Bombil fish, often popularly called as Bombay Duck (no Bombay duck is not a duck, it is a fish, really), is not just a fish, it is one of the cultural icons of the city of Mumbai, from which the fish got its name. Mumbai was called Bombay previously, after all. Mumbai today, is home to over 30 fishing villages, and that nauseating stench that greets one in Mumbai, especially near the fishing villages, markets and even on railway stations and in local trains definitely overwhelms one’s sense of smell, but when a freshly caught bombil is fried and served, most people won’t wait even a second more before tearing right into it. Along Mumbai’s coast, especially towards the northern parts, one could find freshly caught Bombay Duck being hung on the racks to dry.
A crusty an-fried bombil when presented before you, with its crispy exterior and delicious soft inside, will make you forget all the shortcomings of the fish, and push you to dig right in.
What is the famous Bombil Fry?
When the Bombil is marinated in a mix of local Maharashtrian masalas, then rolled in semolina and shallow fried to give it a crisp outside and a soft inside, it is called a Bombil Fry. The Bombil Fry is typically served with a bowl of pudine ki chutney (mint coriander chutney) and a generous squeeze of a lemon. Going across Mumbai, you’ll find Bombil Fry at fine dining restaurants, and you’ll also find it at small roadside eateries. It is available in gourmet versions as well as budget-friendly super delicious versions. Bombil Fry could be had as is, or be a part of a larger thali, complete with chapatis, curry, gracy, rice, and the whole jam.
The Bombay Canteen, a popular restaurant known for promoting local produce and traditional Indian dishes, offers its Bombil Fry in the form of bite-sized balls, which is a refreshing take on the traditional dish.
Bombil is considered to be very beneficial for pregnant women. Grandmothers would always have pregnant women in the house consume Bombil – both dry and fried.
Bombay Duck is found abundantly on the western coast of India, in regions around Gujarat and Maharashtra. It is a common favorite among the Koli, Parsi, Malvani, Konkani and Goan communities, and each community has fashioned its own way of cooking and serving the Bombay Duck.
How did Bombil come to be named as Bombay Duck?
When word of the delicious Bombil reached the fish-lovers on the other side of the country, in the great state of Bengal, they definitely wanted to try it too. As a result, Bombil began being imported from then Bombay to then Calcutta via the Bombay Mail train, also referred to as the Bombay Daak. The Bombay Daak train would always stink because of the Bombil fish. such was the practice that whenever someone would smell bad, people there would say, “You smell like Bombay Daak”. If you were around the railway station, you would know the Bombay Daak train was coming in even when it was a mile away. This term, ‘Bombay Daak’, eventually became ‘Bombay Duck’. This is one of the most popular theories about how the name ‘Bombay Duck’ came about for the Bombil fish. For the uninitiated, it is a common challenge thrown by people – to identify if Bombay Duck is a duck or a fish.
Another popular theory about how Bombil came to be called as Bombay Duck states that the name was coined by none other than Robert Clive. Robert Clive was the first governor of the Bengal Presidency, and when he conquered Bengal, he once tried this fish. He found the pungent smell of the Bombil fish to be similar to the strong smell of newspaper and mail that came in at Bombay cantonment areas. Thereby, he began calling it Bombay Duck.
Bombil wasn’t just popular with Indians, it was also very, very popular with the British. Indian restaurants in the UK popularized the dish big time, by offering the Bombil Fry in their menus. Mentions of Bombil or Bombay Duck have been found in texts from as early as 1815, including the famous 1829 book by Sir Toby Rendrag, where he mentions ‘a fish nick-named Bombay Duck’. Bombil was very, very popular among the British, so much so that at one time, Britain used to consume over 13 tonnes of Bombay Duck. Sometime during 1996, when imported seafood in UK was found contaminated by Salmonella bacteria, all imported seafood that didn’t come from approved freezing or canning factories was banned. This included the Bombay Duck. Bombay Duck, after all, is not produced in a factory and is sold fresh after drying in the open air. One British citizen then was so much in love with the Bombay Duck, that he campaigned endlessly for the ban on Bombil to be revoked. Eventually, after a lot of efforts, the Indian High Commission approached the European Commission, and the EC adjusted its regulations, so Bombay Duck could still be dried in open air, and be sold in Europe, provided it was packed in ‘EC approved’ packing stations. A Birmingham wholesale merchant was able to locate a packing source in Mumbai who would meet these requirements, and thus, Bombay Duck began being imported again.
Humbold Penguins love Bombil too!
It has been reported that not only humans, Humboldt Penguins stationed at the Jijamata Zoo in Byculla have been found to love the Bombil fish too. The penguins arrived in Mumbai in July 2016, and consume about 5 to 6 kg of fish daily. Out of this, about 90% of the fish fed to these penguins in the Bombil fish. Other fish varieties were offered to the penguins too, but they never exhibited as much love and preference for any other variety.
Lord Rama is angry with Bombil
Did you know the Bombil fish finds a mention in the Ramayana too?
If folklore is to be believed, when Lord Rama wanted to cross the sea to reach Lanka, he needed to build a bridge and sought assistance from the marine life. It is said that all species agreed to help Lord Rama, except the Bombil. Enraged with this defiance, Lord Rama picked up the Bombil, snapped it with his fist, and flung it across towards the Western coast of India. This, according to folklore, is believed to be the reason why the Bombil is found mostly on the western coast of India. It is also believed to be the reason why Bombil has such soft, barely there bones. Folktale or not, Bombay Duck’s sparse soft bones make it a very conducive factor for cooking it. However, it can also be a big challenge for beginners to handle the fish owing to its delicate frame. When Bombil is consumed as Bombil Fry, the small bones of the fish often go unnoticed, but when consuming it as curry or any dry to semi-dry dish made using the Bombay Duck, the bones become quite notice-able.
While other fish varieties are generally seasonal, Bombil is available all around the year. However, it is highly recommend that Bombil not be fished during the time span from October to March, as this is the time when the fish breeds, so by avoiding it during this time, one enables sustainable fishing, allowing it to breed and grow.
Bombil beyond the Bombil Fry
There’s definitely more to Bombay Duck beyond the Bombil Fry. Dried form and pickled forms of Bombil are also just as popular. In fact, dried Bombil (Sukat) is considered to be an acquired taste. Bombil is used to make delicious curries which do not smell as much, and taste outstanding. Often, people who shy away from consuming Bombil Fry owing to its stench, tend to take to the curry or pickled versions of Bombil.
In recent times, however, there has been quite a dip in the demand for the Bombay Duck. Other species of fish like Pomfret, Rawas, Surmai, etc. have seen a greater demand, while that for Bombil is shrinking. Fishermen sometimes throw the leftover Bombil that they couldn’t sell back into the sea, something that wouldn’t happen earlier.
People, especially Mumbaikars have a sentimental value associated with the fish, and it definitely holds a special place in the minds and palates of millions of people around the world. Let’s revive the love for Bombil and bring it back to our plates. Encouraging local producers – fishermen, in this case, is important for sustainability of food production. Our palates are best suited for food that is local to the region we are born and grow up in. It not only defines who we are, it is also a part of our lives and culture.
Have any interesting stories about Bombil or Bombay Duck? Would love to hear them!