Fish roe, a culinary tradition across India, is part of a growing debate on sustainable consumption
Being a seasonal delicacy in most parts of coastal India, it is often sold separately at a high price
Monsoon is often a flashback to many a rainy morning spent in my mother’s kitchen watching her cook ilish, or the beloved hilsa. If the catch came with roe, I would be a happy child. My favourite sequence was when she would slide the belly pieces of the fish plump with eggs into the simmering wok.
Roe is said to be the caviar of the tropics. The egg sacs within the ovaries of certain species of fish come densely packed with an outer membrane, are grainy in texture and look like poppy seeds. Being a seasonal delicacy in most parts of coastal India, it is often sold separately at a high price.
The most commonly consumed roe is that of the hilsa (also referred to as the Indian herring), during the July-October breeding season of the fish, which coincides with the monsoon. Roe from Bengali favourites such as rohu and catla is available roughly between May-August. In Mumbai, eggs from pomfret, hilsa, surmai (seer fish), rawas (Indian salmon) and ghol (croaker) are available during the monsoon, as well as in winter.
Mumbai-based food blogger Anjali Koli mentions the maklya ani rawasachya andya cha kanji, a Koli speciality her aunt would prepare with tiny squid and the roe of rawas. What excited her most was the texture and appearance of the roe—translucent, jelly-like when raw, hard and white when cooked. “These eggs would have reached their maturity when the fish was caught, and when cooked, would resemble white peas," she says.
The Pathare Prabhus, one of Mumbai’s original inhabitants, consider it a prized delicacy too. Like the Kolis, the community is non-discriminatory when it comes to roe. Bombay duck, pomfret, rawas, surmai and ghol are some of their favourites. “But the pride of place is reserved for the eggs of pala—a bony sea fish similar to its freshwater cousin hilsa," says Soumitra Velkar, who hosts pop-ups themed on the community’s cuisine. He steams the entire sac seasoned with salt, turmeric and red chilli powder. Once the roe has cooled, he slices it and then either fries it with a dusting of rice flour or cooks it in a gravy with garlic and a special spice mix called methkut—a fiery blend of red chillies, asafoetida and fenugreek.
Consuming roe is usually incidental to buying fish in Bengal. Purists believe that it often has an impact on the overall flavour of the fish, the reason being that when the catch is plump with roe, the belly tends to be thin on flesh. A common preparation in most households is the maacher dimer bora. The batter is basic—besan (gram flour), chopped onions, green chillies and garlic. It is quick, and the batter makes the roe safe to fry when the sac is open as it does not splutter in hot oil.
Kolkata-based food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra makes an elaborate chutney with fish eggs. Maacher dimer chutney is prepared by removing the membrane that holds the tiny eggs and marinating them in mustard oil, turmeric and water. It is then added to a tempering of dry red chilli and the Bengali five-spice mix, paanch phoron. Home-made amchur (dried mango) powder gives a tangy dimension to the dish. The traditional recipe also calls for pumpkin for added texture.
If there is a chutney, a pickle cannot be far behind. Mumbai’s Parsi pickle queen Zenobia Shroff is famous for her gharab nu achaar, which is typically made with herring roe. The flavour is exceptional—the tanginess is achieved from sugar-cane vinegar, while the spices are tempered with mustard oil.
Tradition is a beautiful thing. But the cost of preserving it extracts a price. Environmentalists believe climate change, overfishing and general lack of awareness are immediate concerns. “Since roe is collected from ready-to-spawn species of fish, when the entire spawning aggregations are caught, it affects the stock for the next few years. We must allow them to spawn at least once in their life cycle," says Anulekshmi Chellappan, scientist in charge of the Mumbai centre of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute.
In an urban market like Mumbai, where the demand for pomfret, rawas and surmai is high, is conservation practical? In an ideal scenario, the fishermen would stop fishing during breeding season, and consumers would be conscious of how their indulgences affect the ecosystem. But here’s the catch: There is no one breeding season for fish.
Along the west coast, fishermen are banned from going out to sea in June-July—partly because of the weather, but also to allow fish to breed. But marine researchers point out that not all fish breed in these months, and some may have more than one breeding cycle. To make matters more complicated, climate change is turning the spawning calendar topsy-turvy.
There is some hope, however, with marine life conservationists working to create awareness.
“Maybe a way to preserve culinary tradition is by consuming the roe of lesser-known species of fish," says Ganesh Nakhawa, who owns the ethical seafood brand BluCatch. He suggests eel (locally known as vam) roe, abundant in Mumbai and popular with the Kolis. Nakhawa, a seventh-generation Koli fisherman, practises ethical fishing, and preaches it too. Avoiding bottom trawling, which sweeps the ocean bed and disturbs the ecosystem, and banning juvenile fishing through the use of large mesh nets are some of his priorities.
An online sustainable seafood eating guide, In Season Fish, is encouraging people to consume or avoid certain species in accordance with their breeding cycles. “A utilitarian approach is to avoid eating roe because you are not allowing the fish to regenerate and in a way preventing yourself from enjoying it next year," says co-founder Divya Karnad.
She suggests control on the scale of fishing hilsa specifically when it is carrying roe. “We need to follow Bangladesh’s rule, where the government institutes a ban on hilsa fishing during peak breeding season. It must be caught only after breeding, when they are going downstream from the river to the sea".
A community that may have tackled sustainability even before it became a concern is the Sindhis. The credit goes to them for a mock version of fish roe, a recipe that is pure genius. “There was a time when aani or fish roe, typically of pallo or hilsa from the Indus river, used to be thoroughly enjoyed and eaten as fritters. But our food habits changed considerably owing to political upheavals such as Partition. To celebrate our love for roe, we came up with a vegetarian version that is made with poppy seeds or semolina," says Mumbai-based food blogger Alka Keswani.
The poppy seeds or semolina mimic roe in aani ji bhaji or tikkis where gram flour is mixed with onions, pomegranate seeds and spices. This is kneaded into a dough which is rolled out and cut into flat squares. These are then fried and cooked in an onion-tomato gravy. A clever dish indeed.