Long before the fifth taste of umami was discovered and became the rage that it is today in international culinary circles, there was one very basic, yet a supremely flavoursome dish of India's Konkan coast that was the actual manifestation of it. The gavti (meaning rural in Marathi) bombil chutney-made in homes all along the meandering western Indian Konkan coast-is such a simple, rustic preparation that it can be rustled up in a matter of minutes. But provided you have at hand the very crucial main ingredient present in all its smelly, fishy glory.
Yes, I'm waxing eloquent about the often-reviled dried version of the harpadon nehereus fish, multifariously known as bombil in Marathi, boomla in the Parsi-Gujarati dialect and more commonly as Bombay duck in English. Interestingly, this last name is often the subject of much debate.
Many believe that the Bombay duck gets its name because of its overpowering odour. Apparently, in the time of the British Raj, tonnes of bombil used to be transported from the then state of Bombay via a mail train called the Bombay Daak to other parts of the country. This led to the rather offensive phrase "you smell like the Bombay Daak!". But others attribute its naming simply due to the fact that it was sold in vast quantities from the Bombay docks.
But whatever be its name's genesis, the bombil has been, still is and will always be a firm favourite here in Mumbai and along the Konkan coast. And one of the best ways to enjoy its umami goodness is in its pounded up version where it is ground up with a whole load of onions, tomatoes, garlic and spice powders to form a wet chutney.
I distinctly remember the very first time I ate it. I must have been around 13 when a group of school friends and I stayed at a Parsi friend's cosy summer bungalow, nestled deep in the forest of the popular hill station of Matheran. A place close to Mumbai where most of us Mumbaikars flock to when the infernal summer heat level starts to climb. The old caretaker's wife had very kindly sent up a bowl brimming full of her spicy bombil chutney to the bungalow. The piquant chutney at once infused some much-needed oomph into our simple meal of dal and rice that we kids had insisted on cooking ourselves. I was hooked.
Over the years, I tried unsuccessfully to procure a recipe for it. One that my caterer mother had promised to replicate and add to her culinary repertoire. But alas, that search proved woefully futile with none of our Maharashtrian neighbours willing to part with their prized gavti bombil chutney recipe. Accepting defeat, I literally gave the quest...
It was only a few years ago when Rati, our faithful house help, joined us that I was reunited with the beloved chutney of my adolescence. Her version sees an insane amount of onions (in proportion to the bombil, that is) sweated down to form the sweetish base of the fiery hot chutney. One that has that unmistakable funky aroma to it, but with an umami taste that is pure nostalgia. And while I still relish it with a plate of dal and rice, I've been known on occasion to slather a thick layer of the chutney atop buttered toast to create a delicious, desi-style open-faced sandwich of sorts.
Now, I urge you to try Rati's recipe given below in its original version for the first time for an authentic taste experience. But please feel free to reduce the quantity of Kashmiri chilly powder or up the amount of lime juice if needed when you make it for the second time.
Do note that I use the word "when" and not "if" in the sentence above. Because I guarantee that there will be an encore of making it in your home kitchen. Yes, this gavti bombil chutney is that irresistible!
How To Make Bombil Chutney | Bombil Chutney Recipe:
Recipe by Rati Vairagal
- 100gms dried Bombay duck (sukka bombil)
- 3tbsp vegetable oil
- 8 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
- 5 onions (finely chopped)
- 2 large tomatoes (finely chopped)
- 1tbsp jeera powder (cumin)
- 1tbsp haldi powder (turmeric)
- 2tbsp Kashmiri chilly powder
- 1tsp lime juice
- 1tsp salt
1. Dry roast the dried bombils for half a minute directly over a flame using a pair of tongs till lightly toasted, but not burnt.
2. Chop the bombils into quarters with a knife and wash under running water to remove any burnt bits and dust.
3. After squeezing out any remaining water, roughly grind the bombils in a small spice grinder on pulse mode for a minute.
4. In a frying pan heat oil and sauté the garlic for a minute on medium heat. Add-in the chopped onions and sauté for 5-7 minutes till onions are soft and translucent.
5. Add-in the tomatoes and sauté for another 3 minutes.
6. Add salt, jeera, haldi and chilly powders and gently sauté for another 5 minutes till the rawness of the spices is taken out.
7. Add-in the bombils and lime juice and mix well.
8. Simmer on low with a lid on for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
9. Serve chutney at room temperature.
About Raul DiasA Mumbai-based writer, Raul is an ardent devotee of the peripatetic way of life. When not churning out his food and travel stories at a manic pace, he can be found either hitting the road for that elusive story or in the company of his three dogs!