Saturday, February 22, 2014

Koli Food and Culture Experience

As it happens on the Internet Meera Sodha stumbled on my blog and messaged me through my FB page. Meera born and bred in England was here in India to research on Indian food. The food and culture that her grandparents took with them to Uganda and later to England. She herself was however brought up on Indian food with British influences. Her first book Mother India is infact under print right now in London and it captures that transition of recipes from India to Uganda to Britain.

Her message said, 

"I would love to talk to you about your community, Koli food and with any luck, ask you for a cookery lesson and a few recipes."

A few messages and calls later we decided to meet immediately the next day itself. Our meet up point fixed, outside the Colaba telephone exchange at 9 am. Both excited to share and learn from each other. I was to realize at the end of the day, we both are doing similar work, she in England and me in India.

Our plan

1. Shop for Seafood and other ingredients.
2. Go to Meera's place and cook up a a fiery storm.
3. Lots of talk on Koli food and culture thru the day.
4. Sit down to an authentic Koli meal.

1. Coconut based curry
2. Fish fry
3. A Stir Fry
4. Rice roti
5. Steamed rice

(I chose the seafood for the menu based on Meera's preferences of what she wanted me to cook.)

Armed with the magic Koli Masala without which this day would not be the same and in tow my sous chef, Mad. Meera was there at our meeting point before me, we had started our day early to commute to Colaba so it was only natural to begin our meet with a chai at a nearby restaurant. Over with introduction and setting the expectations of a relaxed day and lots of chatter, we did not realize it was over an hour we sat there.

Meanwhile the Colaba market was all set to welcome visitors and buyers. This is one of the oldest and smaller markets in SoBo. The location is the oldest as it is in the Koli heartland of Colaba Koliwada however the premises have been renovated a decade ago to make it a Municipality run market. We went straight to S a relative of mine who sells fish there, confident that she would be able to help us choose the seafood according to our planned menu. It meant bringing in variety in a single meal, a challenge for the eater not the cook. One really must have a BIG appetite for fish!

There was Halwa (Black pomfret) and there was Saraga (Silver Pomfret) on display, the obvious choice was Halwa for the fry. A lone Mushi (baby shark) on the selling board was calling out to us so we picked that up too for the fry. We were told to wait till the fresh tiger prawns arrived from Sasoon dock, they were for the stir fry. Just then along came my childhood friend B and we bought some medium sized Suke Bombil (dried Bombay duck) from her, she curiously enquired what we had on mind. Ofcourse a Bombil Batata curry I told her. She smiled approvingly, saying "Khobra lavun?" to which I nodded back for she guessed it right.

While we looked around the fish market for more, Meera went crazy clicking pictures of customers haggling with the fisherwomen, hunting for a woman dressed in the traditional Koli garb and even spotting a blacksmith outside the market sharpening the cleavers for the fisherwomen. How mesmerised she was yet absorbing everything like a sponge in her last work week in India.

A Koli woman draped in 12 yards saree and wearing the traditional jewelry.

Sparks flying as he sharpens the cleaver.

S meanwhile got busy cleaning up and prepping the Halwa and Mushi for the fries with a very surgeon like precision! The Kolbi (Tiger prawns) arrived and the Maushi deshelled and deveined the prawns with deft fingers as we watched her amazing skills.

We shopped for rest of the ingredients like rice flour, oil, onions, garlic, chilies, lime and fresh Cilantro. Unfortunately we could not get our hands on Ambe mohor rice that I insist for a meal like this. Meera mentioned she had kokum in her temporary kitchen and I was not surprised as she was here to explore the various community cuisines of Mumbai. Read further to know what adaptation happened by accident in that kitchen.

Laden with the bags of seafood, grains, flour and greens we hailed the yellow black Mumbai taxi and drove off to Meera's place. On the way passing thru familiar sights, by my school, along the Marine drive, up the winding roads of Malabar hill coming to a stop in front of our destination kitchen.

Suddenly we were excited with the challenge of cooking in this really basic kitchen. All it had was a small mixie, an old enamel coated gas stove and aged pots and pans. Both Meera and I agreed that is the way to cook in the real world in real India. Far from the conveniences of her hotel kitchen and my well equipped home kitchen. Infact some of these appliances are not available in the tiny villages in deeper country.

We started by washing, draining and then marinating the Halwa and Mushi with the Koli masala, turmeric and salt for the fries. The Kolbi  for the stir fry. Mad, my sous chef who played hesitant when she was helping me with the Catering order was showing considerable confidence on this day, it came from years of watching her Mum and Grandma cooking the Koli way. Even before I could instruct she was moving smoothly chopping onions, peeling garlic and selecting a pan for frying the fish.

In went the slices of Halwa and inbetween carefully flipping them, I broke the coconut and got Mad to wedge and slice it up for the masala. She was amazing at this point and did not require my guidance she made it all by herself. I felt quite proud of her and let her do the Suke Bombil Batata curry, ofcourse as I watched.

Later I chopped up a large amount of onions and got going with the Kolbi. This is a Koli favorite and is loved at any time of the day, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Yet when I cooked it for Meera, I adapted not just the look but cooked it keeping in mind that her palate was more British even though Indian. Now was the moment when I needed the kokum and out came the packet. I almost looked at it in disappointment! It was not Kokum at all it was the Coorgi Kadampulli in the dried fruit form. I stayed clear of it. Instead thought a squeeze of lime would be lovely against the sweetness of the onions and prawns. So you see the traditional Tallele Vale Sode got a completely new twist. So close yet new!

Meera was in a clicking frenzy handling 2 cameras, hers and mine and also helping us with finding things in the kitchen, which was hers during this stay. It was not the most comfortable ground for us both. She had this wonderful portable digital scale on which she carefully weighed each ingredients. The meticulous chef that she is was noting down the exact timing of when the ingredients went into a particular dish and at times correcting quantities as I adjusted my recipes to suit the international audience of her upcoming book to which I was contributing these recipes.

Once the fish was fried and the aroma of boiling curry filled the entire house we decide to take a break. Meera is a caring host, she ordered vegetarian food for us from a nearby cafe, as she knew I am vegetarian and even Mad was observing vegetarian Tuesday. We sat down to enjoy the chutney sandwiches and cheese toast and a lovely chocolate mousse too. She gave us company as she sampled the fish fries, Moi recommending to her to start with the center piece of Halwa, move on to the head piece and finally the tail, yes in that ordered. The girl loved the tail and that made me happy.

Post the break, She was kind to clean up the tiny cooking platform so that we could start making Chavlachi Roti and Dhaan, to be specific we made Yelnicha dhaan. I demoed the traditional method of making the rice roti on water and a quick trick to get a similar but not the same roti by rolling out on a floured surface. The patting method too for authenticity. So there one roti three ways, results were very close. Soft, gluten free rotis. Up for a switch to the Koli healthy diet?

Done in 1 hrs 30 mins. It's no mean achievement to cook up a meal right from grinding the masalas, making the rotis, steaming the rice and cooking seafood 3 different ways! We did feel accomplished.

We were now waiting for the moment of truth. Both Mad and me agreed that since Meera is a chef herself we would love to see her plate up the meal. She happily did, and here it is Tadah!

When she sat down to taste the complete meal it was interesting to hear what she had to say. It was a lot of seafood on a single plate, completely authentic Koli meal, I reminded her. She has grown up as a vegetarian and switched to non vegetarian due to her profession so she obviously prefers only one seafood dish at a time included in a veg thali meal but she was sure that those who have grown up on non veg would completely love this.

The curious researcher in her asked me why there was no dessert in the meal. Simple because Kolis never eat dessert at meal time. Plus there are very few sweet dishes mostly associated either with some ritual or are offered as naivedya.

It was fun to watch her pressing the steamed rice between her finger to check if it was cooked thru the grain. As she picked the morsel of rice roti and wrapped it around the stir fried prawns, she commented, "Nice sweet and sour." I would have loved her to try them tinged dark with the kokum juice but for that Kadampulli. Lime on the other hand is easiest found substitute for sourness anywhere else in world for this recipe that she wants to take back to England with her.

She found the dried bombay duck curry nice with rice for its coconuty flavours but the bombil was chewy for her preferences. There is a trick to eating Bombils which I missed warning her about before she dug her spoon in. One need to press the bombil between the fingers to expose the centeral vetebrae and remove it before eating, else you end up chewing on the bones than the flesh. Also remember that dried fish even after soaking and cooking is still chewy in texture unlike fresh fish which has delicate texture. Tell a Koli or a Saraswat that there is Suke Bombil Batata Kalvan for lunch, I swear they will come following the aromas to get a taste. You just cannot hide the aromas of dried fish cooking in your home so be prepared for polarized reactions from neighbors; either they will come asking for their share or they would be disgusted with the smells emanating from your kitchen. You are treading volcanic grounds here be warned!

Finally we concluded the day with tips about the work we are doing and  promises to keep in touch. Really both of us are doing the same thing she in England and me in India, documenting the food and cultures of are ancestors and how it has evolved to this day.

Here's wishing Meera success with her first book, Mother India. Can't wait to see it in print even though I got a glimpse of it on the computer.

Hope to see you again soon, Girl!

P.S. June 29, 2014
Meera's book Mother India has been renamed and is being published as Made in India

I am doing Customized packages of Koli Food and Culture Experience

Write to to get a quote.

The things we do together:

1. Learn to select and shop for seafood and other ingredients for Koli cuisine.
2. Learn Koli style cooking and ofcourse feast on it that too in the comfort of your own kitchen and home.

Free with this package 

250 gms Koli Masala

While we are together you will be treated to stories about the Koli community, what they eat, how they celebrate, who they worship and much more. A complete Food and Culture experience.

To keep this experience intimate a small group of 4-5 people is best.


  1. You go, girl!

    Good thing you steered clear of kudampali. I love the stuff but it is not quite the right flavor for our coastal food. Tamarind would have been another option if she had had it. But lemon works, too!

    1. Thanks Manisha! While in Blr and when I travelled to Coorg have eaten dishes using kadampulli and so knew the flavor profile well and I did not want a confusion in book that focuses on authentic enthnic cuisine. Yes Tamarind works well as some Kolis use it but she did not have it. A squeeze of lime on any non-veg food is traditional among the Kolis so I went with lime.

  2. Fascinating!! Will sign up for your experience sometime :)

  3. What a wonderful essay and an unbeatable experience!

    1. Nupur Thank you! you always have nice things to say :)

  4. I love reading about your culinary adventures, Anjali! I wish you many many more in future and I can't wait to read about what you are doing next! I really admire your spirit and the way you take on these challenges and make the most out of it.

    1. Priti yes, I love to put in my soul into everything I do! Thank you for your kind words they means a lot to me.

  5. Hi Anjali,
    The food looks awesome! Really craving some seafood right now.

    1. Hi Asmita, thanks! Try out something from my Koli style label, am sure you will love it.

  6. Now that I'm sitting for a while at a stretch, I am going thru your posts ... so much to catch up on.
    What a lovely experience and such beautifully written,Anjali!
    Loved the details of the food and the photos too. Would love to be able to cook rice bhakri someday.

    1. I am glad you are able to sit up a bit and so happy that my posts are entertaining you. Give the rice roti a try on flour dusted surface first time when you do try.

  7. what a wonderful afternoon. Meera is a wonderful person to spend time with and your cooking looks amazing. woud have joined you if I knew

    1. Kalyan we decided this almost instantly and did it mid week. Yes I enjoyed Meera's company. We missed you this Saturday too. I do need "someone who eats everything" to tell me how my food tastes.

      Will keep you posted.


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