Bombay Duck: A Duck from Bombay?

September 2, 2008


Ever heard of Bombay Duck? It isn’t a duck, but a fish; and it isn’t found in Bombay, but pretty much all along the Indian coastline. Then why is it called Bombay Duck? I’ve come across two fairly reasonable arguments for it:

  1. When the dried fish was transported by the Bombay Mail it became notorious for its smell. Dak being the Hindi word for mail, Bombay Dak (Duck) became the name of the fish.
  2. Bombay Duck caught on because the native name Bombil or Bamaloh was too hard for the British to pronounce during their Raj.


Bombay Duck is possibly one of the ugliest fish you will ever lay your eyes on. And if you’re like me (I hate cleaning lobsters, which we’ll get into some other day perhaps), when something is a kind of a ‘lizardfish’, you are bound to get the creeps. I was in for a shock when I saw the whole fish a few days ago. Ever since I was a young kid, this was just something I’d see at the dinner table, seasoned with spices and fried to perfection by my grandmum. I’m only happy that I didn’t know so much as a kid and merrily ate whatever was served. Times sure have changed. Today, Bombay Duck is one of my favourite summer snacks – delicate, creamy and full of flavour. So what does it look like?

Fresh Bombay Duck – It’s worth the sore eyes!

Fresh Bombay Duck is a very soft fish and is susceptible to spoilage, so most of the catch is sun dried. The photograph you see below is a common sight in fishing villages along the West coast of India where the fish is hung to dry on ropes. A strong, salty, oceany smell follows.

Bombay Duck dried in the sun

When dried, Bombay Duck can be used as a starter. It is awfully salty, pungent smelling and crisp. It is quite popular at Indian restaurants in Britain served with poppadams. It has a strong, fishy and excessively salty taste with a brittle, crumbly texture. One bite of dried Bombay Duck will have your mouth feel like it is flooded with the ocean salt and then finally, you are reminded of the after taste of strong cheddar cheese. A true gourmet delicacy, dried Bombay Duck can be served lightly dry roasted or fried for a few minutes. A liking for Bombay Duck is an acquired taste, so don’t dismiss it after just having it once!

A few days ago I asked my maid to buy some for me (she always gets the best bargains on the seafood – 30 Bombay Ducks for about $1.25!). She was kind enough to clean it for me so all I had to do was cook it!
Here’s a tip: the fish has a pretty high water content, so you need to place it between paper napkins and maybe even place some weights on it. So once it’s cooked it would get too soggy.

My Delicious, Creamy, Crispy, Fried Bombay Duck!

Grandmum’s Fried Bombay Duck

15 Bombay Ducks
3 tbsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tbsp cumin powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
4 tbsp flour
salt

  1. Wash the cleaned Bombay Ducks thoroughly with salt.
  2. Dry them on a kitchen towel. We need to have them as dry as possible.
  3. Mix the dry ingredients together and roll each Bombay Duck in the dry mixture. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes.
  4. In a non stick pan, heat enough oil for shallow frying.
  5. Place the Bombay Ducks in the pan so that there is enough room between them, else they will stick to each other. Let it cook on a slow flame.
  6. Be careful wile turning the fish over – since it is so delicate it will not withstand constant turning – so it’s best to let it cook completely before you turn. It should be completely cooked in 10-12 minutes, depending upon the size of the Bombay Duck.
  7. Squeeze some lime juice just before it’s served.

Serve hot with some terrific green chutney and voila – fresh, sweet, creamy, fried Bombil ready to eat!

* The first two images are licenced under creative commons and belong to sazerac2k and Rohan Dumbre respectively.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 [eatingclub] vancouver || js September 3, 2008 at 7:13 AM

Oh wow, that fish is definitely a sight! Thanks for the info on this weird-looking fish. I’m glad to hear it’s delicious.

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2 amritac September 3, 2008 at 9:21 AM

Mmmmmm…..its always best to have bombay ducks crisp-fried along with a hot sauce! I love ‘em!

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3 noble pig September 3, 2008 at 11:14 AM

I’ll have to admit those raw pics scared me a little, that fish is ugly…but your cooked pick looked amazing!

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4 TS of eatingclub vancouver September 4, 2008 at 1:49 AM

Holy –!!!! What’s with the MOUTH on that fish!?!

=D

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5 Shaheen September 4, 2008 at 1:30 PM

@_ts of [eatingclub] vancouver: I know! Absolutely scary looking. That’s why I didn’t put the photograph right on top, like I usually do. :P

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6 Kitchen Flavours September 6, 2008 at 1:44 PM

something new and looks gr8.

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7 Deeba PAB September 6, 2008 at 6:01 PM

Can you mail me the fried fish too Coco, or maybe I'll come & meet the kind lady who cleaned the fish!!! LOL…I don't think I'd be able to clean the fish. I spent hours at the fish counter the other day lookinh at jumbo prawns…but couldn't get myself to buy them! What a life!!

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8 Shaheen September 6, 2008 at 10:34 PM

@Kitchen Flavours: Thanks! :)

@Passionate about baking: Sometimes the guys at the supermarket are kind enough to clean and fillet the fish. Might want to flash a smile while you’re at it. Hehe

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9 Cynthia September 11, 2008 at 8:11 AM

I love fish very much but I have to admit that this one looks a little scary but oh goodness, you can just tell how soft and creamy the flesh.

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10 Anonymous July 6, 2009 at 4:13 AM

Awesome..Always good to eat Bombay ducks fried in spicy sauce..awesome taste….wonderful…..OH I am from Bombay/Mumbai and I always miss it… delicious…

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11 jerestin February 20, 2010 at 3:48 PM

next time you fry Bombay ducks use cornflour instead of flour they turn out super crisp

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12 Catherine April 13, 2010 at 4:55 PM

Hi Shaheen,
Bombay duck retains a lot of water toom which is why after cooking also it tastes fleshy and crumbly. You can make it crispy if you manage to extract all the water out of it. What I do is place them in a colander with weights on top so that they are as dry as possible when add the masala. It works for me!

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13 Phil Brown June 23, 2010 at 10:51 PM

June 2010 Please tell me where I can buy Bombay duck, I don’t mind shipping from anywhere to UK. Thanks

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14 Martin McCann July 23, 2010 at 5:33 PM

Sir, I am a UK Gent, Retired and living in India. I love Bombay Duck both dried & fried, especially in hot chillies. Mmmmmmmmm the taste.
Howver, while in the UK, I found a shop in London N8 called the Seafood Centre at Turnpike Lane and I bought some frozen Bombay Duck. It was magnificent. Perhaps you can try it from there next time your up that way. They come ready to cook (no heads / no tails). Also they have the most wonderful collection of International Fish for you to choose from. The ready to cook Prawns are really worth a try. 2 bags for only £9.99. Great value. Hope it helps. Regars. Martin McCann

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15 The Purple Foodie June 24, 2010 at 11:03 PM

Hi Phil! I’m sorry I don’t know where you can find bombay duck. Would you liked the dried version? I can send you some if that, if you’d like.

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16 Tanvi Swar August 7, 2010 at 12:20 PM

The worst part of seafood in this hemisphere (western) is the lack of bombay duck! Best fish to fry– sweet, moist flesh and crispy, spicy batter! I don’t know if you know it, but there is a place called Gajalee in Vile Parle that filets it and makes it soooo great!

Awesome post!

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17 The Purple Foodie August 7, 2010 at 2:07 PM

Oh yes Gajalee! I’ve eaten at the Lower Parel one.. I agree, fillets are so much more convenient.

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18 Vikram Singh September 27, 2010 at 4:10 PM

I have tried cooking Bombil before and failed. Shall try this recipe!

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19 Sameera May 5, 2011 at 12:08 AM

Oh my Shaheen! I just accidentally got to your blog and it’s amazing! I’m from Calgary, Alberta Canada and I just had to read the recipe for Bombay Duck! I used to have it when I was very young and it was amazing! Only my mum and I would eat it the rest of the household would gag and run out of the house! This brought back a lot of good memories….

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20 Kapil February 20, 2014 at 8:36 PM

Hi Sameera,

I am new in Calgary.
Do you know, where I can find Bombay Duck in Calgary?
Please reply me @ kapildev.vaja@gmail.com

thanks :)

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21 Seneka Goone October 10, 2011 at 7:42 PM

A friend of mine, who is a Sri lankan told me that, when he first arrived in London in early seventees, he happend to cook some Bombay duck. The neighbours smelt it and called the Police to say that there was suspicious smell coming from the nieghbours house. Police had come to investigate the smell.

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22 domnic December 30, 2011 at 4:25 PM

Darn!!! Miss it, the nice soft on the inside and beautiful crunch on the outside.. One of the few fishes which melts… and it really does.. :((

From T.O

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23 badfrog101 May 4, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Do you not reconstitute the dried, salted fish? My Basque brother-in-law showed me how they reconstitute bacala (salted dried cod), two or three days in water, changing the water every 12 hours to remove salt, then the last 12 hours throw in some Carnation dry mild powder which neutralizes any salt left and plumps the fish up. Then cook as if fresh. Much much better than without the milk. Anyway, thanks for an informative post.

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24 VEERA December 21, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Thanx alot 4 d recipee, coz i always love to do new experiments on food…
As im a gr8 foodie!!!!!! :P

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25 Mahesh February 6, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Oh I first tasted bombil( Bombay Duck) recently in a Mumbai bar when I moved to mumbai from bangalore. Brought up as a vegetarian and not used to eating fish I liked it a lot. It was crisp outside and simply melts in the mouth and could not find any thorns.

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26 Anand October 14, 2013 at 2:51 PM

Thorns are in veggies my friend, those are bones! :)

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27 chaitanya karnik January 21, 2014 at 6:53 PM

Hi Shaheen…
Just happened to come across your blog and I’m pleasantly surprised at the fact that there
happen to be so many people outside India who have developed a liking for such a fish with humble
origins.
Now there happens to be a minute correction with the information given in your blog…This fish is indeed found in the waters around Bombay.
Now i do understand that there would be plenty of recipes to cook our Bombay Duck, but in addition to the ingredients mentioned in your recipe, I would recommend a layer of thick tamarind paste to be applied along with 2 tablespoons of ginger garlic paste. Also i would suggest that you use gram flour (besan) and rice flour and some semolina (rava) to coat the fish before frying it.

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28 Shaheen February 12, 2014 at 11:58 AM

Just reading your recipe has got my mouth watering. Thankfully, I’m going to Bombay next week so I can eat all the bombil I want. :)

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29 Innocent Stanley June 28, 2014 at 10:37 AM

Hi wkuld like to know where can I buy this fish Dry or Frozen

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30 chaitanya karnik July 12, 2014 at 1:04 AM

Hey Stan, where are you based? Do you live in Mumbai? Let me know so that I can suggest the best place to buy Bombay Duck from.

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31 Shaheen July 12, 2014 at 12:14 PM

Reply from Stanley via email:
Hi thanks for reply, no unfortunately I don’t live in Bombay I’m in US Las Vegas. If have any contacts here please let me know. Thanks again.

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