The Bombay Duck’s Gutsy Journey From The Sea To Our Dining Tables

The Bombay Duck’s Gutsy Journey From The Sea To Our Dining Tables
Rashi Arora

Needless to say, it all begins deep down in the sea. Hundreds of them are born every few months and thousands of them swim in our oceans. For a few, life ends where it first begins. But for most, there’s a longer afterlife. From a slithery, slimy, light pink, lizard-like existence to a crispy golden, curried and fried or even brown, stiff, pickled and dried above-ground end - the Maharashtrian coastal region’s most iconic fish goes through a long production process before it ends up on our tables. The way we like it best. We wormed our way through endless fish markets, the worlds of people who depend on this fish for their livelihood and countless production lines to understand every rung it passes before it makes it there so here’s a glimpse into the gutsy, glorious afterlife of the Bombay Duck.

Lost In Translation

Before I indulged in the production process of the Bombay Duck, the question that irked me more than the fish’s smell was one that plagues many of its consumers – Why is a fish called a duck, anyway? Turns out the etymology of its name is also rooted in its journey. Apparently, during the British Raj, the English loved the fish so much that they started transporting it from Mumbai across India in cargo trains that were labelled as Bombay Dak, literally translating into Bombay Mail. Lost in translation, the dak became the duck and the name has stuck ever since. However, the Kolis (fishermen) still prefer to call it Bombil and it is with them that the process first begins.

The slimy, lizard like Bombay Duck fish - fresh out of the sea. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The Fisherman’s Great Catch

The fisherman and the Bombay Duck share a strange, symbiotic relationship. “No boat in the sea goes out only for this particular fish but most boats don’t come back without it either. The Bombay Duck sells well in the market. It is sure to bring us some profit,” says 32-year-old Wasim Seth who has been fishing for almost 15 years. Dressed in a bright orange T-shirt and shorts, sporting rubber chappals and a hat, he tells me that he had just returned from sea after 5 days, with a variety of fishes, the Bombay duck being only one of them. “Mostly, big boats are responsible for bringing in the Bombil. We have thin ‘Dot’ nets of various sizes in waters ranging in depths from 6-10 fathom that we drop into the water to catch the fish. Once caught we have ice boxes on the boat to store them in and keep them fresh until the boat returns to the shore. The availability of the Bombay duck depends on water currents. The best time to catch these fish is between June and August,” he explains. Once the stock of Bombay duck arrives at the docks, the fight to claim it begins.

Boats arrive at the docks with the Bombay duck. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The Bombay Duck At Bombay’s Docks

In Sassoon Docks, Mumbai’s most famous port, hundreds of boats and fish trawlers of all colours and sizes line up at the crack of dawn. The sea rages, chaos unfolds and people go about their business, not caring a bit about the strong stench that lingers. It’s too much for me to take in at 4:00 AM. Fishermen return with their catch after spending days at sea, where families arrive from nearby villages and areas to buy their stock. There is constant pushing, bargaining, shouting and the local vernacular buzzes in your ears. Amidst all of this are thousands of lifeless Bombay Ducks that the fishermen neatly stack in baskets and throws towards the auctioneer who stands at the edge of the dock. Not a single fish tumbles out of the basket during a throw, nor does the auctioneer ever miss a catch. An expert combination of hand-eye coordination on both sides to any bystander.

The great catch. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Something Fishy

Truth be told, the docks are not for the faint-hearted, the meek or the unsure. If one wants to buy good quality Bombay Duck or any fish for that matter, they need to prepared to bear the overpowering stench of the fish, the constant cacophony of the auction and the rude responses of the auctioneer. On the Wednesday morning that I visit the docks, there are almost 20 auctioneers for the Bombay Duck alone, each having claimed a corner. Pot-bellied, sporting rubber boots, they seem to enjoy a certain kind of power shooing away photographers stating that they won’t allow it. As they yell out the prices in a sing-song manner, the fisherwomen flash their cell phone lights on the Bombil under a purple sky to get an understanding of the quality and the freshness of the fish. “The light pinkish colour of the Bombil should be intact, the eyes not sunken and the skin should be slimy and bouncy,” Nandini Patil, a fisherwoman, bidding at the Bombil auction says, as she pokes the Bombay Duck.

Nandini Patil also explains to me the pricing of the Bombay Duck which varies every single day. “It depends on the catch, the month and even the day of the week. For example, a lot of people don’t eat non veg on Tuesdays and Thursdays so the price is less. But on weekends, the demand is high, and the price skyrockets. Today being a Wednesday, the prices are decent,” she states.

During the auction. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The Bombay Duck’s Local Journey

Once the auctions at Sassoon are done, most fisherwomen sit outside the docks to sell the fish. However, some decide to go the various markets and try their luck there. Vandana Chinchad, who belongs to a village on the Gujarat border, makes a difficult journey and comes to the docks at least thrice a week to sell fish here. “I bought this 2kg of Bombil for 450 bucks. Even though the competition is high here, I will still get a better profit than in my village,” she states. Most, however, take the opposite route and sell the fish they buy here in their respective villages. While some find themselves stuffed inside trucks along with the thousands of sea creatures, some take a journey thousands of Mumbaikars take every day. And thus, the Bombay Duck too gets to experience the adventure that is the Mumbai Locals. During early mornings, the luggage compartments reek with the stench of the fish. Nalini Maushi sits on her hunches on the door of the compartment as she takes the harbour line train from CST towards Khar. Her basket is full of fishes and at the top is our favourite lizard fish – Nalini Maushi is off to sell them at Khar Danda. When questioned about profits, she confidently says, “The place doesn’t matter. You should just know how to sell it to get the best possible price,” she says holding a few Bombils in her hand.

Bombay Duck in the train. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Up For Sale

What Nalini says holds true in the fish markets that I visit. These fish markets are exactly what they have been described to me - utterly chaotic and utterly colourful. The foul smell makes its presence felt in the hot humid air as soon as I enter. Fisherwomen sitting on their haunches in a narrow muddy lane, yelling out the prices as hundreds of people from nearby areas bargain with them in crass, slang Marathi. From fish to lobsters to crabs, prawns and even octopus, the markets in Mumbai are interesting and rich in variety – but my quest is for the Bombay Duck who’ve now reached the final few stages of their journey. There they are stacked in colourful baskets kept out for display under the morning sun for the buyers to see, negotiate and haul home.

Fisherwomen selling Bombay duck at the Sassoon Docks. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The buyers have their own loyalties towards fish markets. 26-year-old Prateek Salvi comes to Sassoon all the way from Thane twice a week to take back the Bombay Duck in enormous quantities for his entire family. “If I were to buy it from Thane, I will get it for double the price. Here it’s fresh, right out of the water with no extra costs,” he says. Similarly, the manager of Jai Hind Lunch Home gets their Bombil from the Matunga fish market.

Most retailers, however, seem to get their stock of Bombay Duck from Manish Market near CST. It is the unique fish market I have ever seen. The market is inside a huge plaza like building and the air inside is cool. The ground is wet and the sides are stacked with rectangular baskets full of various fishes. What is the same is perhaps the chaos, but even within that, there is a system, a hierarchy to be followed.

The main men are the Seths who employee a manager under them to overlook the operations. The manager employs a few fisherfolks to acquire and sell the fish in the markets. The profits are enjoyed by the seth whereas all the employees under him are given a fixed salary. Each counter at Manish Market has a Seth and his team competing to sell out first.

Mnaish Fish Market in the morning. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Towards the corner is an accounts department with a weighing scale, where the right price of the Bombay duck and other fishes are determined and entries are made. The first floor has offices of the Seths who also are part of the Fishing export business as well. An exit from the Accounts room leads one down to another section of the fish market, run by women. Here, many fisherwomen, who are employed by hoteliers, come to buy fish. The Bombay Duck lasts only for a day or two. Thus, the ones that goes unsold is packed in ice crates and sold off as fertilizer or to dog/cat food companies.

The Accounts Department at Manish Fish Market. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown
Packing up the left over Bombay Ducks in cartons. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

On The Table - Fried or Dried

From the waters through the boats and markets, it now lies on the plate - crispy, golden and adequately salted, a perfect starter for an elaborate seafood extravaganza - the fried Bombay Duck. While many love it, the fact remains that the meat of the Bombay Duck has no distinctive taste of its own. That is why many fish sellers dry it under the sun and then sell it. Dried Bombay duck is favourably used in making pickles and spices too. It is an acquired taste and is had as an accompaniment with dal and curry. And with that, the journey of one of the region and perhaps even the country’s most iconic regional fish comes to an end.

Well, almost.

Where it goes next is hardly appropriate dinner table conversation.

Bombil fry at Jai Hind Restaurant, Mumbai. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

All photographs are taken by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

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