In the Bombay Canteen kitchen, we have always chosen to work with seasonable produce and ingredients. This is as true for seafood as it is for vegetables! Whether it is the catch of the day that is delicately plated for our Sol Kadi Ceviche, or the season’s best that goes into our Fish Pullimunchi, the practice of procuring seafood always challenges our chefs. The person who makes this procurement possible for us every single day for O Pedro and The Bombay Canteen is our seafood supplier, Junaid Khan. Our interactions with Junaid unfortunately only occur in 15-minute increments while he is dropping off our daily seafood supply. This is why we took the time to have a quick and candid chat with him..
First of all, Junaid’s actual name is Mubeen, which is something a lot of people don’t know. He goes by his father’s name because of the elder man’s trusted reputation. Junaid’s father has been in the seafood business for nearly 40 years now and has garnered a lot of good will! Junaid recalls that back in the 70’s when his father was looking for a job, he was approached by a local fish shop. After a few months, when the owner shut shop, he convinced Junaid’s father to start his own business and the rest is history. When Junaid’s father first started his own business, one did not need to hold a license to sell seafood. From the age of ten, Junaid spent all his time in his father’s shop. From filling tubs of seafood while gliding through the shop, to cleaning the produce as it came in from the docks, Junaid doesn’t remember a day when he was treated as the owner’s son. Today, Junaid and his father run a very successful business in Chembur, housed in a fishing village where they face aggressive competition from ninety-two other vendors.
In order for us to get our produce at 10:00 am, Junaid starts his day at 2:00 am.
Here is the gist of what it takes for that fish to arrive on your plate. Junaid, along with three of his employees, begin their morning by visiting the railway stations to pick up their produce. The seafood that he procures comes from Gujarat, Kolkata, and from local waters of Maharashtra. Junaid says that he seldom rely on one source. The more contacts, the more stability! Now, unlike non-perishables where quantity is guaranteed, seafood availability ultimately depends on the luck and resources of the fishermen. No two days are the same! When there are seafood shortages, Junaid heads to Crawford Market or Sassoon Docks to make up for the difference.
Now, here’s something rather amusing that occasionally occurs in the wee hours of the morning. Theft is a big reason for any shortages. Junaid mentions this to us very casually, as if he is completely accustomed to it. He tells us that he picks up and transports the seafood with an army of three men simply because he may leave the station with fifty Red Snappers in his box, but by the time he transports them to the van, there are probably only forty five left. Some chors at the station usually steal a few for themselves. The extra run to Crawford Market or Sassoon Docks is usually to compensate for these heists!
When all the seafood has finally been procured, Junaid heads to his shop where his team segregates the produce for each restaurant. When his father started his business, he very quickly converted it into a retail store that focused on supplying to restaurants.
Today, the duo supplies seafood to multiple restaurants across the city. As chefs nowadays influence the public’s choices in food, we asked Junaid about purchasing patterns with seafood that he has noticed recently. He says that there has been a spike in consumption of prawns. With every order that goes out, prawns always make it to the list. Unfortunately, however, he believes that people are still not conscious about sustainable eating. When the city gets its annual rains, the demand for prawns remains the same, and when vendors are unable to meet those demands, consumers switch to frozen seafood, which Junaid is entirely against.
He says that when something is packed in an unnaturally cold environment for month, there is no value left in the produce. The joy is completely lost. During the Bombay rains, Junaid gets his produce from Kolkata and Gujarat for a much higher rate and for a lesser profit margin. He does not see this as a huge challenge because he staunchly believes in procuring healthier produce, rather than simply making a profit. Junaid is the biggest cheerleader of eating local because it not only helps his community, but also helps sustain the entire eco system. His advice to buyers is to enjoy what is naturally and locally available and to educate themselves on their intake.
We asked him how he assesses his seafood so quickly (he does so in a matter of minutes).
He examines the fish to ensure its skin has beautiful shine. The amount of shine directly correlates to the freshness of the catch. The shine starts to deteriorate the minute the fish is kept against ice.
- Check the gills! For fish like Red Snapper or Indian Seabass the gills must be red. When they are not, you know that the fish are not good. For fish like Black Pomfret where you cannot check its gills due to its anatomy, you press it just behind the ear. If it releases red water that indicates that the fish is not fresh. If the water is white that means the fish is perfectly healthy and ready for consumption!
- Local Red Snapper instead of Indian sea bass. The latter is more expensive due to the demand and hype built around it but the former is so much more delicious!
- Halwa, also known as Black Pomfret, over White Pomfret
- Bombil also known as Bombay Duck
- Sardines – even though they have tiny bones, they are great for your health!
- Octopus – very few restaurants purchase them! They are often treated as by-catch.
- Chaya also known as Silver Snapper. This is mainly exported. Whatever remains is sold in local markets. It has a sweetish flavour and is one of Junaid’s favourites!
And how should one enjoy it all? For Junaid it is all about a good fish fry!