Eat, drink and celebrate the cuisine of Mumbai's Koli community

Dishes from the Koli Agri Table at Courtyard Pavillion.
Dishes from the Koli Agri Table at Courtyard Pavillion.


Mumbai’s indigenous Koli community’s cuisine is in the spotlight with everything from food festivals to culinary walks and fine dining riffs paying homage to it

As an ethnic micro community known as much for their fishing prowess as they are for their mastery in seafood dishes, the Kolis hold great sway in the culinary landscape of Mumbai. It’s no great surprise then, that Koli cuisine is a much hallowed and fêted one.

The popularity of Koli food's purveyors like Dadar’s cloud kitchen venture Koli Kitchen and Mi Hi Koli, a restaurant with multiple outlets in the city, augment this cuisine’s great appeal. While the former’s jawla (micro dried prawns) masala is worthy of singing a paean for, the latter’s gaboli sukka (dry preparation of fish roe) and prawn stuffed bombil (Bombay duck) are worth the trek to its trio of outposts in Mulund, Ghodbunder and Panchpakhadi in Thane.

Speaking of a trek, at the on-going,dinner-onlyAgri Koli food festivalat Courtyard By Marriott Navi Mumbai’s Courtyard Pavillion restaurant, guest chef Savita Nivrutti Koli, a wedding caterer and home chef from Karanja in nearby Uran, talks of the starring role seafood has in her community. “Almost an equal amount of what we fish for sale, will end up on our table," Savita says with a laugh. “These take the form of appetisers like kolambi Koliwada (semolina-crusted sea prawns), kardiche pakode (baby shrimp fritters) and makul bharlele (dry coconut masala-stuffed squid)' all made with our favourite peanut oil. Our mains are a range of curries like the red moshi (shark) kalvan (curry) and the coconut-based chimbori (crab) curry. Of course, we also have quite a few vegetarian dishes like dalimbichi usal (field beans gravy) and tondli chanadal (ivy gourd and gram stir fry). These are best had with Koli breads like the rice flour-based, neer dosa-adjacent ghavne and the puffy, wheat and rice flour kombadi wade." The last one as its name suggests, is used to mop up the fiery red gavti kombadi (country chicken) curry. The festival will end on June 30.

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Savita makes it a point to emphasise the significance of the typically Koli kala masala that imparts a dark, almost black-ish hue to a host of dishes. Particularly, the smoky-flavoured kala mutton. She explains, “This masala is made mainly from black-hued spices like black pepper, cloves, black cardamom, and black sesame seeds. With poppy seeds, cinnamon and red chilli powder added to balance things out."

From the annual Versova Koli Seafood Festival held in late January or early February at the grounds of St. Anthony’s High School in Seven Bungalows, Versova to the year long pescatarian bounties of the Mahim Koliwada Seafood Plaza that’s housed on the beach along the Mahim causeway, there’s a great sense of communal dining to Koli cuisine.

“This was precisely the reason why we started our micro community walks and food tours in 2019. With a few of our firsts being Koli-centric ones," saysAslam Saiyad,a photographer with a passion for documenting micro communities, who also runs a Mumbai culture exploration tour company named Hallu Hallu. Meaning “slowly slowly" in Marathi, this company engages with the local Koli communities in several areas in and around the city. Those who sign up for their walks will not just learn about the cultural significance of the Kolis, but also get a taste of their sumptuous food. Saiyad shares, “Our Versova Koliwada walk that’s led by Rajhans Tapke, a local Koli, ends with a meal at his home prepared by his wife Harsha. Here one gets to try some Koli classics like the fried prawns, pomfret kalvan (thin curry) and even a few rare ones like the vagti (a river fish) curry and the bamboo ke bombil. This one being a preparation made using slightly sun-dried fresh Bombay duck doused in a thick, spicy gravy."

Led by Thelma Poojari, a local Koli activist and home chef, Hallu Hallu’s Chimbai Koliwada walk in Bandra showcases the unique and impossible to ignore side of Mumbai’s Christian Koli community’s cuisine. “While our kitchen is seafood-led with dishes like a pomfret amotik (a hot-sour curry) and bangda (mackerel) masala fry, we have a huge cache of Portuguese-inspired meat dishes like pork vindaloo, pork sorpotel and salted beef tongue, among others. These we serve with sides like the western pickle style, non spicy, sweet-sour East Indian vegetable ‘wedding pickle’(made with raw papaya and carrots in a vinegar brine)and sweet pulav with breads like the deep fried wheat flour, toddy and coconut milk-based fugiyas, and chitaps which are thin rice flour crepes," says Poojari. The meal ends with a shot of homemade grape wine that she says has been fermenting for three years.

Thelma Poojari in a red saree with guests who signed up for the Chimbai Koliwada walk with the local tour company Hallu Hallu.
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Thelma Poojari in a red saree with guests who signed up for the Chimbai Koliwada walk with the local tour company Hallu Hallu.

Paying homage to its location in the heart of one of Mumbai’s oldest Koli strongholds of the Worli Koliwada neighbourhood, is the tony Slink & Bardot restaurant and bar. LastDecember, it introduced a special menu celebrating Koli cuisine with a fine dining twist. The seven-course tasting menu, simply called ‘Worli Koliwada’ conceived by executive chef Ali Akbar Baldiwala features interesting riffs on traditional Koli dishes. “When you look around, you see local fisherwomen selling their fresh catch of the day. We took inspiration from a Koli fish thali with dishes like the roasted ghol (black-spotted croaker) fish with the crimson-hued, Kashmiri chilly, turmeric and stone flower-basedKoli masala flavoured butter and a spiced coconut sauce," says Baldiwala who also serves an outré sounding side dish of smoked tomato jam with a jawla salsa on the menu.

Further augmenting this Koli homage is a special cocktail menu at the restaurant called ‘Tales From The Shore’. This one, by head mixologist Santosh Kukreti, features drinks like the not alfonso which is a whisky and clarified milk cocktail that has the Koli favourite spice of aamba halad or mango ginger making its fragrant presence felt. “Another Koli-inspired drink is the jujube sour, a creation borne from our close collaboration with the resilient fishermen of the Koliwada. Drawing in from their age-old fermentation techniques, we present a libation that fuses the tangy flavour of fermented jujube with pisco, parmesan cheese liqueur and a dash of lemon," he explains.

Food, they say, has the power to leave behind indelible memories.And given the imprint the Koli community continues to make on Mumbai’s culinary landscape, this edible legacy sure is a deliciously enduring one.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

Also read: Go on a savoury cocktail trail across India

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