I smell a Bombay duck

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on March 06, 2020

Dry run: One theory holds that the fish got its name from the Bombay Daak, the train that transported the fish to Bengal in colonial times - Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   -  THE HINDU/ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The skinny, bony fish with the misleading name embodies the quintessence of the city

My family has varied eating habits. My husband is largely vegetarian. My daughters are strictly non-vegetarian. And I am a leftover-arian.

The goal of the committed leftover-arian is simple. It is to declutter the fridge in order to create shelf-space for fresh leftovers. As a result, lunch is, very often, the unlovely remnants of dinners past. It could be three congealed tablespoons of pesto sauce. Or a small bowl full of prawn pulao that has been denuded of every single prawn. Bhindi bhaji of uncertain vintage and gluey consistency and a thimbleful of hummus huddled in a dish the size of a truck tyre.

There are times I bitterly resent this state of affairs. This, though, is not one of them. For over the last few days, I’ve had a saucy, piquant friend over to lunch. A bottle of deep red bombil pickle. A concoction of sun- and smog-dried fish smothered in a wicked, vinegary masala. Salty, spicy, sweet and uniquely Bombay.

For the Bombay duck — that skinny, bony, smelly fish with the misleading name — embodies the quintessence of the city. You spot it at restaurants in a golden heap of deep-fried deliciousness, crisp on the outside and buttery-soft on the inside. You encounter it in the crimson depths of the Tarapori patia, sent across by a kind Parsi friend, to be eaten with fluffy rice and bland mori dal. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, you meet it in a gravy dish that the Maharashtrians whip up with potatoes and brinjals.

You also run into this unlikely muse in Konkani folk songs, like the colourful Bombil Mary. In children’s books, such as the gorgeous Bombay Ducks, Bombay Docks, in which history professor Fleur D’Souza uses the bombil (lizardfish in English) to explain Mumbai’s connection with the sea. And in fiction, such as Louis Bromfield’s Night in Bombay — a racy, evocative novel set in the Bombay of the 1930s — which opens on a passenger liner sliding into the city’s harbour. On the deck of the ship, a British woman stands with an American acquaintance and catches a whiff of woodsmoke, jasmine, dust, copra and funk:

“Ah,” she said. “Smell it? That Bombay smell.”

“Bombay Duck.”

Almost 100 years later, the ugly fish continues to infuse the smoggy air and to sunbathe along the frenetic pavements of the city. And, of course, to confound newcomers with its peculiar nomenclature.

How bombil became Bombay duck is quite a mystery. Hanklyn-Janklin or a Stranger’s Rumble-Tumble: Guide to some Words, Customs and Quiddities Indian and Indo-British describes the bummelo as a delicate, gelatinous fish and suggests that “the name is an Anglicism from the bazaar cry in Marathi, ‘bomilta’ — here is bomil”.

Another theory holds that the fish got its name from the Bombay Daak, the train that transported the fish to Bengal in colonial times, leaving behind an eye-watering, nose-wrinkling pong. The British witticism, “you smell like the Bombay Daak” got tongue-twisted into “you smell like the Bombay duck”. And the fish that was already named after a reptile, now found itself named after a bird as well.

Through these twists, turns and identity crises, however, one thing hasn’t changed. The bombil retains its most-favoured-ingredient status among the fish-lovers of Mumbai. The flattened, batter-fried Bombay duck remains a beloved item on the menu of Britannia Restaurant in Ballard Estate, in the seafood eateries around Dadar and Fort, and in homes across the city.

As soon as the monsoons storm across the Arabian Sea, Mumbaikars get set for their bombil fix. The Parsis are known to devour dozens of fried Bombay ducks for breakfast. The Maharashtrians make rich coastal-style curries and simpler variations that involve marinating the fish in spices and then cooking it in water for 10 minutes. The Bengalis make a dry preparation called loitte maachher jhal, while salty, intensely flavoured chunks of sundried Bombay duck go into east Indian pickles, Maharashtrian chutneys and Parsi patias.

Meanwhile, Bombay-duck-love has spread far and wide. In 1996, the European Union cracked down on seafood imported from India. Only specific frozen and canned fish products were permitted — and dried Bombay duck vanished from the curry houses in the UK.

This did not go down well. A British businessman called David Delaney spent four years petitioning the bureaucrats of Brussels. Others, too, chimed in on his Save the Bombay Duck website. “We always enjoyed Bombay Duck as a starter and as an accompaniment to our Indian meals. My favourite way to eat was crumbled over the top of the sauce or dipped in raita,” wrote Ms SM of Porthmadog. While RM of Kidwelly wrote, “PLEASE can we have our Bombay Duck back, please. It is a treasured accompaniment to what is now virtually our national dish. I miss it terribly.”

When the EU capitulated, Delaney printed a stack of Celebration T-Shirt and the controversy ended on a happy but stinky note.


Dry bombil pickle
  • (Strong smell alert, but so worth it)
  • Ingredients
  • 24 dry bombil
  • 2 cups oil
  • 1 cup vinegar
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • Make a paste with:
  • 1 1/2 cup of vinegar
  • 20 Kashmiri chillis
  • 20 cloves of garlic
  • 10 peppercorns
  • 1 inch ginger
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • Pinch of haldi
  • Method
  • Cut the bombil into 2-inch pieces. Rinse well in vinegar and then discard the vinegar.
  • Heat one cup of oil in a pan and fry fish till crisp. Drain on paper towels.
  • Strain the oil through a sieve lined with a paper towel. In a clean pan, heat the strained oil and fry the spice paste till the oil starts to separate. Then add the fish, sugar and salt. Mix well and cook on low heat for five minutes.
  • Let it cool, then store the pickle in a glass jar. Heat the remaining cup of oil and pour it in the glass jar till the pickle is submerged.
  • Let the pickle sit for a week at room temperature.



Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Published on March 05, 2020

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