They call the seas their home, fishing their source of livelihood, and Mother Nature, as the protector of their community. Kolis are fisher folk from the coastal regions of Maharashtra in India, who are known for their wide range of seafood delicacies, all of which are prepared using only fresh seafood.
A long time ago, before Bombay became Mumbai, the kolis were known as the original inhabitants of the well-known city we see today. Over time, this seafaring community grew smaller, and now occupies a few pockets of the city under the regional title koliwada, which translates to ‘a home that opens to the sea’.
While many in India are aware of the koli presence, a small community in Dubai is preserving their ancestors’ fishing legacy through food.
A cuisine dependent on the sea
Our community would sell all types and sizes of fish in the local markets back in Maharashtra. The men of the community would go deep-sea fish for as long as seven days, with their boats and handmade nets and come back with several kinds of seafood – be it fish, shellfish, baby squids, and more. It was their occupation.
“We are an ethnic community who have been in Maharashtra for a very long time now,” said 43-year-old Supriya Takkar Fernandes, a Dubai-based Indian expatriate, and the owner of Vasai Local restaurant in Al Karama, Dubai. “Our community would sell all types and sizes of fish in the local markets back in Maharashtra. The men of the community would go deep sea fish for as long as seven days, with their boats and handmade nets and come back with several kinds of seafood – be it fish, shell fish, baby squids, and more. It was their occupation.”
While the koli men brought in fish, the women of the community were the ones who perfected the cuisine to what is served on tables and eaten today. “Women would wake up at 5am to grab the first batch of fish being brought in, fresh from the sea, and they would cook with it.”
The food would be prepared on a chula or a stove made from clay, which could be found at the backyard of every koli hut. Once prepared, the fish would be served on a floral plate, whose design is exclusive to the community. “It’s a red or blue floral design, which can be found as the border of the plate. Taking inspiration from the same, the plates at our restaurant also have the same style.”
Perfected with an 18-spice blend
The koli masala is prepared using two to three varieties of chillies, cinnamon, cloves, and more. The recipe for this spice mix is passed on from generation to generation, differs among families, and is ground on stone.
The Koli style of cooking is quite different from other coastal cuisines of India as well. For one, the community has a spice mix, exclusive to them and is used in almost all their dishes. The spice mix, popularly known as koli masala, uses a combined blend of 18 spices and varies from family to family as well. The recipe, however, is always a ‘secret’ when asked.
Gulf News Food caught up with 51-year-old Anjali Koli Cooper, a popular koli food blogger in Mumbai, who said, “Initially, before chillies came in to the picture, we used spices like turmeric and long peppers. The fish would first be boiled, either with sea salt or in sea water, and then roasted on embers. The use of pepper also depended on one’s family status as well – black peppers were more expensive, but long peppers were spicier. Small to medium sized fishes would be used on a regular, whereas the large fishes would be used for occasions.
“As for the koli masala, it is prepared using two to three varieties of chillies, cinnamon, cloves, and more. The recipe for this spice mix is passed on from generation to generation, differs among families, and is ground on stone," explained Cooper.
“In my family, we have three kinds of spice mixes, all of which I source from home itself,” added Fernandes. “One is the green koli masala, in which coriander is the primary ingredient. The red masala, which is popular in the Vasai region of Maharashtra, and we have a rava masala as well, which is primarily made with semolina or rava.”
Less coconut, more souring agents
Contrary to the popular belief that Indian coastal food primarily uses coconut, kolis use very less coconut in their cuisine. “We don’t use a lot of coconut in our dishes. It’s more of ingredients like coriander, tamarind, seasonal sour mangoes, all of which are mostly added into a onion-tomato base,” said Fernandes.
Speaking of sour mangoes, koli cuisine is also known for its souring agents, which bring an additional depth to the gravy. A thin curry would use raw mangoes during the summer, kokum or garcinia indica during the monsoon, and these mangoes are even dried and preserved so that it can be used much later during the year. In case mangoes aren’t available, tamarind is used in the curries.
But what are all these seafood dishes paired with?
Rice, rice, and more rice
Koli flatbreads are known as bhakri. The making process is quite similar to that of a paratha or a roti, except that it is made with rice flour, and are consumed mainly during breakfast and dinner meals. Lunch meals include seafood ambat or gravies, fried fish, pickle and steamed rice.
Another interesting fact about the kolis is that they very rarely make dishes using meat. Their food is a tribute to the seas and a product of the hardships they face when they go fishing.
“Koli food is incomplete without rice,” said Sachin Narhar Joshi, a Dubai-based expatriate and restaurant owner of Peshwa, a Maharashtrian restaurant in Dubai. “Rice is quite common to the community, especially because it pairs well with all of their seafood dishes, which is a blend of spicy and tangy flavours. Another interesting fact about the kolis is that they very rarely make dishes using meat. Their food is a tribute to the seas and a product of the hardships they face when they go fishing. The vegetable dishes are also paired with seafood itself.”
Brinjal with dry prawns, potatoes with prawns, papaya with fish, barnacles, water snails or clams are some of the distinct food combinations of this cuisine, served with rice. However, their meal patterns and combinations change during special occasions like a wedding or a communal gathering.
A different menu for weddings and food festivals
“Ghol fish, barramundi and sting rays are some of the seafood dishes you would find at our weddings,” explained Cooper. “We do eat sharks but not a lot, because it is a mammal and our women don’t prepare dishes with the meat during special occasions.”
Other wedding staples include varad cha loncha, vade and fugiyas. “The varad cha loncha is a wedding pickle made with raw papaya, carrots, vinegar and koli masala, whereas fugiyas is what we call a balloon bread – it looks similar to the Emirati luqaimat, but is not sweet – and can be eaten with a gravy or as is,” said Fernandes.
All of these seafood meals are also accompanied with a drink called sol kadi, which is a drink made with coconut milk and kokum. The pink-hued drink is primarily consumed with seafood meals mainly because of its antacid properties.
Desserts such as moongori is served post-weddings and other occasions. These are rice flour balls cooked in jaggery and eaten after the meal. “We also have undre, which is another name for modak,” said Fernandes.
A “no-fuss” cuisine
Koli cuisine is as simple and humble as its people. However, while its traditions are many, it seems to have faded over time and become more of an acquired taste, especially because modernisation has created a “selective eating habit” according to Cooper.
“Koli cuisine is a no-fuss diet. Certain recipes of ours are lost today. It’s mainly because many within the community have moved out of the profession and family recipes are now forgotten. However, I do feel that many people are opening back up to the idea of authentic koli cuisine, especially because the new generation welcomes foods of all kind.”
Like Cooper said, the cuisine is quite uncommon to those outside India. However, the few kolis in Dubai have preserved their culture, even if it is exclusive to their homes. We caught up with 45-year-old Prashant Naik, another Dubai-based Indian expatriate, who works as a consultant in the engineering industry.
I feel like the popularity of our food is increasing, but the people preserving these traditions are very less.
“We are known as bhumiputras, and the preparation of our food is based on age-old practices by our ancestors. Dubai has always been open to new cultures and cuisines, and we are quite happy with the fact that we can showcase our food through small-scale food festivals and such.
“I grew up in a family, where my brother would go fishing at Vasai; he still goes fishing today. I used to go with him when I was younger, but now I go only when I’m back home. We used to make the nets on our own and it was something that was taught to us at a young age… I have forgotten it a little, but my memory is always refreshed when I watch my brother weave his own nets. I feel like the popularity of our food is increasing, but the people preserving these traditions are very less.”
Naik also said that while Dubai is home to many spices of the world, it is quite hard to find certain regional spices, and hence he has to source it from his hometown back in Maharashtra. Despite the challenge of keeping the cuisine alive, these expats have kept koli cuisine on the map, by sharing it with friends and family outside India.
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