Coating the fresh crabs with spices could be a joyful experience. Photo: Anjali Koli
Aaji roti zayli? Bhook lagli mana. Jevaan de.
For as long as I can remember, hunger has always been for a specific food, and some times influenced by seasons. It was hunger for fresh kolim vanga in the months of summer, sode batatyacha kanji in the monsoons, and thin Sargyacha kanji over a heap of rice in the cooler months. Kanji here is Koli for curry and not the rice gruel.
I remember rushing into the sooty kitchen, which had a terracotta chool to find Aaji shaping bhakris or rice-rotis expertly on a large iron tawa applying water on the surface, and delicately moving the dough around in a circular fashion. I'd watch her mastery, but unable to resist my salivating mouth and growling tummy.
She would lay a paat or a low-raised platform for me next to her and ask me to get a taat or plate. Then she would fold the hot rice-roti once, tear it, open the two halves, lay them over each other and tear them again to divide into quarters and place them on my taat. I'd notice her blowing her hands as she went about it. Then in a small plate she would pick out the best piece of fish from the handi and serve it to me. My beautiful Yesu aaji looked divine when her face glowed against the fire in the chool.
We are a fishing community living along the west coast of Maharashtra, India. A typical day for a Koli begins by waking up in the early hours and going to the sea on the boat. The men spend the early hours riding the waves and swirling their nets into the sea to collect fish. A man with a small boat handles everything himself, right from anchoring the boat to strategically throwing the net into the sea to pulling out the catch. This is strenuous work as water makes everything much heavier especially the nets filled with the wealth of the sea.
A large boat is typically manned by a 10-member team. Each khapnar (worker) is assigned a specific task on the boat. There is one who handles the anchor, another the mast and yet another empty the water that collects in the hollows of the boat. While the nakhwa or owner supervises overall activities, when at sea, even he helps with all activities if needed. This even though he is the owner of the boat. He is the one who holds the sukanu or the navigator. The entire team comes together to pull back the nets laden with the catch, while loud cries of 'Zor lagake haisha!' fill the sky.
Once the catch is pulled on to the boat, the sorting out starts. If there is a large ghol, it is put on the deck. The medium-sized fish like surmai, pomfrets and halwas are sorted out and put into the drawers built into the boats below the deck. The rest of the shrimps and smaller fish are filled into baskets or plastic bins in recent times. These are sorted out on the shore by the women folk.
Just like there are seasons for specific vegetables and fruits, there are particular seasons for fish as well. All fishing is stalled during monsoon for four months as the Kolis respect the environment to allow the sea to replenish.
You are now wondering what does the Koli eat as per the season. The summer months of March, April and May are when the fish have reached their largest size, and the nets are filled with tiny shrimps/ kolim, halwa/ black pomfret, saranga/ pomfret, ghol/ jew fish, surmai/ mackrel, kuppa/ tuna, shevndi/ lobsters, khare/ anchovies. There are also other varieties like nevta, the slimy fish from the marshes that is cooked alive.
Bombil is in abundance just before the monsoon. They are dried for use in the rainy months, and the half-dried ones make for a yummy Bambooke bombil curry that is lapped up straight from the handi in many a Koli household. The shivlya/ clams in a coconut gravy boiling in the kitchen has the capacity to magnetically pull you into the kitchen well before meal time!
When torrential rain stops even the most adventurous from stepping out of the home, the day's meal is enlivened with sukka or dried fish. It could be dried tiny shrimps, medium or large ones. All three taste completely different and each has a specific combination with vegetables. At times when the rain gives a respite, it is chimbori/ crabs, khubee/ sea snails, kalva/ oysters harvested from rocky shores and intertidal zones where they thrive the most.
Post-monsoon that is around September-October, bombil, pomfret, prawns, karli/ herring, kaati, surmai and Ilish are available in abundance. This is the time when the sea is replenished and all types of fish are available. Also, this is the most-loved season by the fish-eating community with the kitchen making way for curries, fries and fresh fish roasted on embers. There is so much variety that rarely there are repeats in a meal.
By October-November-December, mandeli, datri, vakti and baga (silver eel), shrimps, shevndi/ lobsters, repti/ sole, maakol/ octupus and squids start featuring in the meals. The mandeli curry, which is just about coating the fish is lip-smacking as is the baby octopus in an oily curry.
Fish that is found in the deep sea such as pakat/ sting ray, mushi/ shark, long-nosed shark/ sondala are enjoyed throughout the year. They make very meaty curries too.
Since it is monsoon, catching crabs in the intertidal zones and on the rocky beaches is a pastime among Koli men, and they fetch a good price too.
Such is the life of the fisherfolk. They know when to eat and what to eat. So, eat like a Koli!
Recipe for Chimborya chya Kanji or Crab Curry (Serves 6)
6 small chimbori/ crabs cleaned and chunked at the market
1/2 grated fresh coconut
1 handful cilantro chopped
3-4 green chillies
6-8 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon Koli masala
2 potatoes quartered
2 tablespoon oil
Salt to taste
1 glass water
1. Rinse lightly the cleaned and chunked crab. With a pestle slightly dent the claws. This denting helps the masala to flavour the claws inside out, and also helps to crunch on them while eating without fracturing your tooth.
2. Grind to fine paste the coconut, cilantro, chilies, turmeric and garlic. Keep aside.
3. Heat oil in a shallow pan. Add the cleaned and chunked crabs to the oil. Give a stir to coat with oil. Add the quartered potatoes and shake the vessel around to distribute them. Let it cook for 5 minutes covered.
4. Now add the ground masala on top and sprinkle the Koli masala. Top up with water and shake the vessel around to mix the masala and move around the crabs.
5. Cover and cook till the crabs go from grey to orange. Add salt to taste. Once the crabs are orange and the potatoes are cooked, remove and let the flavours meld atleast an hour before you eat. This curry tastes better as it matures.
Tip: This is a coconut-based curry, so we do not add souring agent while cooking. The souring agent if used during cooking, increases the acidity of the curry and thins it down by coagulating the coconut. So it is best avoided at the cooking stage. Instead it tastes better with a squeeze of lime.