Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Matsyagansha Mahotsav A look at Mumbai seafood.

My knowledge and experience of seafood is still just at surface level. A fact that was brought home with my visit to the Matsyagandha Mahotsav that happened at Bandra Kurla Complex from 18-20 Dec. Ironic when one has grown up in a coastal city like Mumbai. But growing up in a Gujarati, home meant seafood was most definitely NOT on the menu. (My ancestors probably still turn in their graves!) And while my well travelled father encouraged us to eat non vegetarian when we dined out, he did not eat too much seafood (I think he was allergic to some things) and by extension we didn’t really get a n introduction to it. The only thing he was passionate about was King Prawns which I never took to.

My experience of seafood was limited to one occasion that I NEVER forgot from my childhood. A crab curry I ate at my Parsi Tutor Lily aunty’s house. The curry itself has long faded from my memory but the flavour of the sweet flesh of the crab inspired a deep and abiding love for that particular crustacean! I truly discovered the messy delicious business of eating seafood much later in life. It is one of the few good things that my annoying little brother Kunal Munshaw can pat himself on the back for; introducing me to Tandoori Rawas at Mahesh Lunch Home. (Although it does not make up for the millions of fly soups he served me as gags growing up!) But save that ultimate Tandoori Rawas my seafood experiences flowed along with fish dishes sampled at friends homes or restaurants.

Then my second pregnancy instigated a deep craving for prawns that converted me from a prawn hater to one of the best prawn cooks I know (With due apologies for being immodest). Suddenly fish was on the menu and how! This was also the time Shobha, my super efficient little dynamo of a housekeeper came into my life. Shobha is Maharashtrian, and was most excited to find out I suddenly wanted fish. We soon discovered the fish man who home delivered the freshest catch to our building and life was never the same again. Jhinga (prawns and Shrimp), Surmai (Kingfish), and Pomfret were cooked up, first in Maharashtrian avatars and then as I got adventurous but as far as types of fish went that was it. And then my cook Kavita, joined my band of merry women, and introduced me to a few new things, such as a baby shrimp fritters. I also discovered that Maharashtrian food and by extension the seafood it serves has dialects.

So I was pretty interested in visiting the government sponsored fish festival when I got an sms from my friend Vikram Doctor telling me about it. But I seemed to be in a laziness induced stupor so I heartedly Tweeted about on Monday morning, figuring if I didn’t hear back from someone willing to go with me I would give it a miss. But a big THANK YOU to CurrySpice of Followmyrecipe who made this fishy rendezvous with me, and brought along a surprise package in her adorable sister Ms Cultured Purl, seeing as it could not have been half as much fun digging into that crab on my own!

So we met up outside the fest. Now Vikram had texted that the information stalls were not great and I did need to get home so I urged my companions to ‘focus on the FOOD”. In any case it was hard to walk past the very first food stall we spotted. (WO)manned by a gaggle of gregarious Kohli women of the Bhave family from Versova. They very adeptly giggled their way into our hearts as they posed for us and answered all our questions, all the time determinedly exhorting us to eat at their stall. So we did. Asking for a sampling of everything they had we settled down at a tables while they arranged it all on a lovely thali; King Prawns, Masala Clams, Masala Prawns, Pomfret Curry, and a sumptuous stuffed pomfret all to be eaten with rice roti. I was curious, were these families in the food business, did they have restaurants of catering businesses? Nope. They were simply fisherwomen who usually sorted and sold fish their men brought in. They were here at this festival to showcase their food and culture. Which is something they occasionally did.

Just as we were sitting down, a performance began on the stage behind us and all these lovely ladies just dropped everything they were doing and sailed out on the wave of music like a flotilla of fishing boats dancing to the notes of the sea. They lead hard lives on a daily basis, but they are so much an example of living for the moment with their beautiful Nav vaari saries (Maharashtrian women wear 9 yard long saris that are draped differently compared to the standard 6 yard sari), all the gold jewelry they possessed and traditional ‘veni’s or flower garlands adorning their hair.

A Kolin as a Koli woman is known, does not just wear jewellery for adornement. They don’t believe in bank accounts and choose to invest all their savings from their kurga (daily earnings) in gold. Their entire position in society, their freedom of speech and action comes from this economic independence. They are the ones that provide economic stability to the family commanding respect from in laws and her parents alike. And it is pure hard work that is the foundation of this status. Their days begin at the break of dawn when they go off to sell the fresh catch their men bring in, returning home only after their fish is sold. And selling that fish can mean travelling into the city on trains with heavy baskets on their heads, going from door to door, being the best performers they can as they cajole and bargain for the best prices possible. But their work is not done when their baskets are empty, they come home to numerous household chores like cooking and cleaning, not to mentions additional tasks such as mending fishing nets, weaving baskets and sorting and drying fish. They really are an example to learn from, because they

We decided to do a reiki of all the stalls to digest our food before we ate again. Indian Seafood is mostly known for Kerela and Goan fish cuisines, mostly because the tourism bodies of those states are very active, but Mumbai is also a great place to dive into seafood and the Matsya Mahotsav shows why. In the dozen or so food stalls were showcased Malwani, Mangalorean, Koli, East Indian and some surprisingly innovative and delicious Indian Chinese (which is a Indian regional cuisine of a kind...) seafood preprations.

Stall after beautifully decorated stall, offered tempting preparations. I got a chance to try some new varieties as well, Tilapia manchurian, fried smelts (Mandeli) which Jyotika ate whole but I could not bear to eat the head of. So I neatly stripped the little fish down to its little skeleton affording much entertainment. I also had fried Makarel (Bangda) with a generous squirt of lime 0 nice fish that- and Chilli Shark Curry and then ended our seafood extravaganza with two crabs that had been stuffed with an incredible coriander chilli paste, one peice of fried Kingfish (Surmai). As we were goofing around taking pictures of the crab graveyard we had created on our table, eulogising the two crustasceans that had given their lives for us, the stall we were at began to come out and display the seafood they had leftover. They wanted to sell it off so that they could travel home light. I spent the last of my money on a Kingfish, added to two packets of prawn pickle I had picked up it was a rich bounty of the sea to bring home.

I am now very interested in discovering more about Seafood from Maharashtra and am concerned about the overfishing issues that are threatening our sea life. Read Vikram Doctor's column on the subject HERE Overfishing is a threat all over the world and was one of the most intensely discussed topics at the recently helt Terra Madre convention. It is not only with grains and vegetables that we need to stick to tradition, we really do need to eat responsibly in the case of seafood as well. Not just so our children get to savour the bounty that mother nature offers but also so those brave Koli fisherwomen can continue to wear their earning with pride.

Also read fellow food blogger Curryspice's version of our evening here after noon Big FIsh eats Little Fish
And SassyForks here Sassy Fork has written about the Koli Fish festival


Kim said...

Lovely. There are a couple of fish here that I don't recognise.

Nachiketa said...

What Sea-fullpost... Love it.... :)

Happy New Year!!!
The Variable, Crazy Over Desserts - Nachiketa
Catch me on facebook @ Crazy Over Desserts

theyie keditsu said...

loved reading this post! and the photos-what a treat:)