A couple of years ago, as I was emptying my fridge in preparation for closing the Mumbai apartment before returning to New York, I found some fresh radish in the vegetable drawer. I had already given away most of the left-overs to my cleaning lady but the radish looked so fresh and beautiful that I couldn't part with it. Indian radish has big green leaves and small white root compared to the radish that you get in New York, where the leaves are practically non-existent and the white part dominates. Sauted in oil with some garlic, green chillies and onion, Indian radish makes an excellent vegetable dish. I was dreaming of making it in New York as I surreptitiously packed the left over radish in my suitcase. I had always brought back food from India with me on previous visits - homemade flours and masalas made by my mother or aunts, dried fish, dried stuffed chillie peppers, sweet and savory snacks such as laddu and chivda... So bringing back a bunch of radish did not seem like a big deal to me.
Well, to cut a long story short, the US customs officers at the Newark airport did not agree with me. They threw the radish in the garbage bin right before my eyes (after the fifteen hour long flight, it was looking like a shadow of its former self anyway) and plus charged me a hefty fine.
Since then I am very careful and make sure that not a crumb of food gets into my luggage when returning from India. I have learnt to manage with what I feel are adequate substiutes that I get from the Indian super markets here.
But it's hard!!! Not being able to bring certain foods from back home, makes churning out meal after interesting meal a bit difficult. For example, I am running out of my stock of dried bombay duck and I am not sure how to replenish it. I have seen dried shrimp (and some other fish that remain nameless to me) in stores in Chinatown, but never have I seen dried bombay duck or anything similar looking in any store in New York.
Silvery-white in color, about six inches long and a couple of inches wide, the bombay duck (it's a fish not duck) is slippery soft to touch. The flesh of fresh bombay duck is translucent and resembles coconut-cream in look and texture when cooked. When dried, bombil (sukka bombil as it is called) turns almost khaki in color and shrivells down to half an inch in width, but for some reason does not seem to shorten much in length. It is one of the most popular fish eaten- fresh or dried- in the region surrounding Mumbai (used to be called Bombay). Other popular dried fish sold in the local fish markets are - shrimp- classified according to the size into three different categories- the tiniest called jawala, slightly larger called sukkat and medium sized dried shrimp called sodey; surmai - king fish; and bangda - which falls somewhere between sardines and mackerel.
Dried fish can be easily stored outside of the refrigerator over a period of time and is also easy to cook. As the taste and flavor of the fish intesifies when it dries, all you need is a couple of strong ingredients like some sauted garlic and onion to balance the intensity of it's flavor. Of course no Indian dish is complete without some form of chillies thrown in. Growing up, my mother would resort to sukka bombil or sukkat to add quick pizazz to a dinner that was at the risk of becoming boring for the lack of an elaborate preparation of fresh fish or vegetable.
During our school vacations in my grandma's home in Warle- a small village located a couple of hours outside of Mumbai- one of the regular breakfast meals would be sukkat curry with- hot off the griddle jowar or rice bhakari. No fancy preparation of curry mind you. Just a couple of cloves of garlic fried in a little bit of oil, add some water, red chillie powder and salt, a handful of sukkat and a small piece of kokum or tamarind to give it a little sour touch (Indians never cook fish without adding some souring agent) and voilla a quick and easy concoction to dip the hot bhakaris in would be ready in minutes to feed a bunch of hungry grandchildren when eggs from grandma's chicken coop were in short supply.
In her memoir, my aunt Suman has beautifully described her childhood days in Warle. Besides buying the salt water (sea) fish like bombil and sukkat from the market, village households would catch and dry their own sweet water fish, caught in the streams during the heavy monsoon season. The fresh catch would be brought home, cleaned and spread on the wooden rafts hanging over the wood- burning earthen stoves to dry for a couple of days. While the women supervised the drying fish at home, kids would spend their mornings on the makeshift wooden structure called kiw, erected in the field to block and catch fish. Aatya describes monsoon rains so heavy that not only the fields but the roads would get flooded as well. Schools would be closed. It would rain continuosly for days together- sometimes the whole week- with no sun showing up for days. It would be a happy time for the kids as they could spend their mornings off from school catching fish and roasting it on the camp-fire while warming themselves inside a thatched hut in the field and popping the roasted fish straight into their mouth.
Mumbai is a coastal town nestled in the lap of the Arabian sea. Originally inhabited by the fishermen community called kolis, it's current face is that of India's financial centre- a modern city. The kolis have managed to preserve their koliwadas still- in the midst of the ever- rising skyscrapers- where they continue to live in hut like dwellings, practising their age old profession as well as the new ones of a major metropolis.
As you drive through the northern outskirts of Mumbai you will see fish drying on lines like clothes or spread out on fishnets hanging on the sea shore to dry in the scorching sun - its whiff reaching your nostrils way before you actually pass by a koliwada.
Here is a story that shows the importance of dried fish in my family- Years ago when my father returned from his first business trip to France I was very excited to know all the details. He came home late in the night after I had gone to bed but I caught up with him in the morning when he was having breakfast, ready to leave for work. "How was Paris daddy, how was the French food?" I asked. He seemed to pause for a moment not knowing what to say. Then dipping a piece of bhakari into his steaming hot sukkat curry and putting it in his mouth he said, "forget that French food. Nothing can compare to this."
At the time I thought my father was too much of a country bumpkin to appreciate the finer cuisins of the world... Until recently, when I read a quote from Marcus Samuellson in The New York Times. "...other ethnic foods, especially Asian have as much integrity and power as any French food I'd ever eaten," says the famous chef in his book.
I guess my father knew something I did not!
Caveat: Dried fish is not for everybody. It's an acquired taste- acquired over the years. You must know how to cook it and how to eat it before attempting to do it at home. Especially if you keep the windows closed due to a/c - be careful! The smell will linger for days afterward.