Mumbai – the ever receiving, ever welcoming financial capital of India. The city of dreams, of cuisines, of communities. Intertwined with its essence of community is the original ‘Bombay’ – the land of the Kolis.
The Kolis are the ethnic community of Mumbai – the ones that are at the docks at 4 am, in the trains and railway stations with the bamboo cane baskets on their heads and seawater dripping from them. They are also the people who put up the amazing Versova Koliwada Seafood Festival in Bombay at the beginning of the year – showcasing their fresh seafood, glorious masalas and pickles and their culture.
Despite staying in Bombay for more than 10 years, I just got to visit the festival this year in January. Post work, an office colleague and I ventured out to the end of Versova near the Koliwada (where the community fishes and lives) to the large ground that was hosting the festival.
The buzz at the venue is indescribable. There were two long rows of stalls with the local women and men serving up fresh seafood in their local masalas and preparations. Some of the stalls were beautifully decorated with fishing nets, shells and other seafaring mementos that you would think they collected on their way out to the sea.
The families were dressed traditionally and in all their glory. And the food…oh! the food was as glorious as it was traditional. Seafood of all kinds was cooked perfectly – the spicy, tangy masalas seeping in to their flaky textures. – fish, fish roe, Indian anchovies, prawns, clams, crabs, lobster, squid, mussels and so much more fresh seafood was at our beck and call.
However, we didn’t get too adventurous and went with the usual suspects. We started off with a large surmai (king fish) simply pan fried in a spicy red masala and served with (wait for it) schezwan sauce – a total put off – which we refused to eat. But the fish was so well marinated and the flavours were spot on.
We then went on to have a lobster stir fried on the shell in tomatoes, onion and kala masala (a traditional garam masala of the kolis). We also had some beautiful crab cooked on the shell in a glorious red colour. And clams cooked in a similar masala as the lobster but thicker.
After roaming about for a bit, we moved on to the other end of the ground while passing a stage where the Kolis were putting up performances and giving speeches. Here, we had the most impressive, delicious and beautiful stuffed squid ever. The stuffing was a green masala – coriander leaves, fresh coconut, and some jaggery with spices. Of course, I hazarded a guess, but we did end up ordering another dish.
Moving on, we picked up some amazing fish pakodas – coated in semolina and deep fried. We also had some decadent prawn bhajiyas (fritters) that we literally popped like pop corn. They were being served up by the older women in a community stall.
There were several other dishes and seafood items to be tasted – but we were quite stuffed to be honest. Moreover, the number of ‘tandoori’ items was quite a put-off considering the cuisine we had come to taste.
Nevertheless, after picking up parcels and shelling out quite a bit for the food – we moved out, but not without making some memories. I might not go next year, but I will never forget the taste of that stuffed squid that so gracefully made place for itself in my list of Best Dishes I’ve Eaten.