Not fresh my fish??
It all started a few months after I arrived in Mumbai…
I had been hunting a rat in my flat, without success, when this horrid smell started. Shit, it must be dead in an impossible place to find!! I started looking anyway, without success again.
I then stepped out of my flat, only to realise that the whole neighbourhood smelled of dead rat!
To be accurate, of dead fish.
And here we are, 3 years later, when I finally decide to look into it. The thing that has “bothered” me the most is that this is not a constant smell. It will someday come, stay the whole day and then disappear. So I wondered why…
After some research, I think it depends on 2 things: 1. when the fishermen go fishing which is linked to the moon, 2. the way the wind blows when the fish is drying.
To go a bit into details:
The “fish specialty” of Mumbai would be the Bombay duck (or bangda or Harpodon neherius), a narrow, usually 15 to 20 cm long, slimy fish. The Bombay Duck along with different species of prawns, sharks are mainly eaten dry and are hence responsible for the foul odour of fish we sometime experience in Mumbai.
Season – It is mainly caught in November and December. Local fishermen, who catch fishes up to January, keep some stock for drying. And in May, their wives sell this stock in the weekly markets. Fishing in rainy season is banned by the government as is it is breeding season and also because the sea remains rough.
Narial Purnima – It is a festival celebrated all across India by the people for whom the sea is a means of living, particularly the fishermen (the Koli tribe in Mumbai). To all fishermen, this day marks the beginning of a new fishing season. As this day declares the end of monsoon, fishermen decorate their boats, paint it afresh and put flags and once more go out in the sea for fishing. On this day (August 13th in 2011), people worship the Sea God 'Varun' and offer him coconut. According to the Koli seafaring tradition, this is the day after which the wind strength and direction changes in favor of fishing, and thus this is the day on which Kolis celebrate the start of a new business season.
Timing – I haven’t found much details for the fishing time of the Bombay Duck but I found that in May, in a given place of Mumbai, the best days to fish the Big Barramundi are the 9th, 10th, 11th,12th & 13th according to the Hindu calendar. And the best times to fish there is night time after 11 PM till 4 AM when the tide starts receding. And I also found that in November there 5 best days for fishing based on the phase of the moon in any time zone in the Northern Hemisphere (http://www.lake-link.com/moon/).
Processing – The processing goes on from December until March. The whole fish is washed clean, split, boned, and dried in the sun. The drying is done on scaffolds made from bamboo poles fixed in the sand with bars tied with thick ropes horizontally in lines one above the other. This is the method adopted for the local market.
The pieces are immersed in 5% brine for a few minutes and dried on the scaffold in the sun for about 40 hours. They are then pressed individually in a roller press and further dried in the sun for about 10 hours. According to my colleague, you have to dry it for at least 8 days for it to be completely dry.
After drying, the odour of the fish is extremely powerful, and it is usually transported in air-tight containers. There is demand for dried salted fish mainly for its flavour – and it is low in cholesterol and fat according to my colleague.
Name– “The name has nothing to do with ducks. During the British Raj, the Europeans could not stand the smell of the fish drying in the sun. It reminded them of the odour of the wooden railroad cars of the Bombay Mail train, which must have turned musty and pungent during the monsoon. The Hindi word for mail is "dak", hence the Bombay-Dak, or Bombay-Duck."