True scents of history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am


Bombay no longer goes by that name, but a duck is a duck, right? Perhaps not. Bombay duck is, in fact, a species of lizardfish.

The story of this marine life-turned-poultry is set during the British Raj (1858-1947). Around this time, transcontinental railroads stretching east to west across India had just been built, allowing the transport of people, post, food and so on across the country. One of the things being transported was the highly prized bummalo fish, native to the Arabian Sea off the west coast of India, mostly in the waters north of Mumbai, and much sought after. The fish would be hung and dried in the sun, then delivered to markets when ready.

However, dried bummalo has a distinctive ocean smell. Legend says it was initially transported alongside passenger cars, but after many complaints about the intense odours, the fish were simply dumped into the mail, or dak, car. Dak is the Hindi name for an ancient postal system. The term was revived around this time, when it was again used to refer to the post.

From then on, it became notorious that mail from the Bombay dak would smell horrendous, and the saying 'you smell as bad as the Bombay dak' was applied to anyone with a stench. The term Bombay dak also became synonymous with bummalo, and later, thanks to those who brought the dish to Britain, dak was anglicised as duck.

Some stories attribute the coining of the term to Robert Clive, major general of the East India Company, who defeated the French to secure India for Britain. That version of the tale says that when he tasted bummalo for the first time, he thought it smelled like the mail that came to him from the Bombay dak post and simply called the dried lizardfish by that name. As Clive died in 1774 and trains were invented in the early 1800s, we're taking this version with a pinch of garam masala.

Today, Bombay duck is available in Indian restaurants either as a starter or crumbled and sprinkled over curries. Either way, it is usually fried with copious amounts of spices until crisp and dry. The taste of Bombay duck is as pungent and concentrated as the aroma, and is an acquired one.