Mumbai holds within her a metropolis which is only looking for more grounds to grow, but at the same time there are pockets of quintessential old school Indian charms. The recently concluded Vesava (Versova) Koli Seafood Festival is an example. 2013 was the festival’s eighth year and is no longer as quaint as one would imagine it to be. Spread on the grounds near the Ganesh Mandir in Versova Koliwada, it was a boisterous, loud, exuberant and crowded affair; in the middle was a stage with local Koli performances spruced by the occasional visits of the local corporaters and civic authorities as chief guests. The original aim of the festival was to allow the local fishing folk or the Kolis to showcase their culture through food especially in the off season. What one sees are women dressed in their local best efficiently manning counters, taking stock of inventory and even the till. Men for their part play the discreet vigilantes always in the lookout for unwanted trouble that may need to be kicked out.
This year saw more than 40 food stalls serving one and only one category in the food chain – seafood. Each stall served up the shells, crustaceans and fishes in the traditional Koli way and also with some twists. My experience of these wondrous dishes happened last year thanks to a good Samaritan. This year, it was time to imbibe the sights, sounds and smells personally. It started off with a good helping of the Clams Masala or Tisrya Masala. Shells cooked in thick gravy of onions and coconut it was one of the favourites with its hint of spices but no overpowering pungency. With that came the Bombil fry. The Bombay Duck is now one of my favourite fish types. Simply fried in a semolina batter the crispy exterior hid the most tender and juicy flesh ever. It is apparently a common practice to keep the fishes under heavy stones to drain out some of the excessive moisture prior to cooking. So addictive were these little fried wonders that there were three helpings ordered. And this was the just the beginning! Post the appetiser-like binge came a table full of goodies. The Dried Prawn Cutlet had a nice kick of chillies to rid the dried fish stench, but it did not kill the flavours of the sea.
In the east of India, fish roe is a much favoured produce and best tasted in the form of fritters – something that has been on my favourite dishes list since I was a child. So to come across fish roe in a new avatar – Koli style fish roe – was a revelation. The masala was basic; the simplicity of the cooking method leaving the core ingredient’s integrity intact was refreshing. The addition of Kokum makes the dish even more unique.
The Masala Crab was the toughest nut to crack with only your fingers and dentures. The patience and effort was well worth for the sweet crab meat together with the green coriander, mint and coconut masala. The Koli fisher folk sell a huge chunk of their catch to various hotels and restaurants in the city. These catches do not see the face of the consumer markets, you understand this when you see the single piece of the Surmai fry. The massive piece Mackerel looked overcooked with its dark and crispy exterior, but breaking into it was a delight for it was just perfect. It tasted as good as it looked as well. The Koli style Grilled Pomfret too hit the nail on the target with the basic spice rub and grilled to succulent perfection. There was on offer a Masala heavy version as well. The only downer in the entire seafood entourage was the prawns. Despite the different spice blend, the prawns did not seem fresh. But with an almost perfect score the finale was not complete without a paan and a Kulfi Falooda.
The festival takes place every January, to get confirmed dates it would be best to check with the women selling fish at the Andheri market.