If you are ever invited to lunch at Sunila
Patel’s, and if you happen to know in advance that she will be serving her
crisp-fried, green chilli-stuffed Bombay Duck, then please do drop every
pressing engagement and go.
It is an arduous climb up several ‘builder-steps’ to her second floor apartment, but worth every asthmatic gasp.
You will be seated at a square wooden table, bought in the mid-eighties at Taaru’s, that furniture brand that existed when there were no such things as furniture brands. Behind you will be a wall full of books, leaning against each other unselfconsciously like old friends. The walls will be scattered with delicate Mickey Patel drawings. And a split air-conditioner will lower the second-floor summer temperature considerably.
But all this will fade to a blur and your whole, undivided attention will fall on the star attraction, as it is placed simply before you.
The Bombay Duck is not a bird, it does not quack, neither does it come from Bombay. Ours comes a short hop down the road from the Chittaranjan Park fish market. To call the Bombay Duck a fish would be like calling Shabana Azmi an actor. It is much more than that. It is about an inch longer than a six-inch ruler, slender, firm, yet slightly, nicely, plump. (Think Aishwariya Rai’s belly in ‘Kajra Re’.) It is marinated for a bit in a touch of turmeric, a finger’s pinch of red chilli powder, a tiny hint of ginger-garlic paste, stuffed with an entire small green chilli, dusted in the merest whisper of rice flour and placed delicately on an iron griddle glistening with smoking hot oil till it is done to an impossible deliciousness, shatteringly crisp on the outside, the flesh meltingly soft and moist on the inside.
Even though I would include Sunila in my list of favourite conversationalists in Delhi, her Bombay Duck is best eaten in utter silence, with your fingers, head focused firmly on the plate in front of you, fingertips just slightly scalded by the searing hot flesh, hands used only in pantomime when it is time for your plate to be replenished. You pause mid-mouthful to rain fresh lime on it, lengthwise, from large half-discs of lemon, or gulp large sips of iced water. It is important to mention here that no other conflicting flavour be served alongside. The only thing that goes well with Bombay Duck is more Bombay Duck.
The ingredients for this feast to end all feasts cost a princely 30 rupees. But simply flashing a credit card will not give you access to this extraordinary taste sensation. It is a dish that occupies heartspace, not menuspace. In a sense, this is fast food, straight from the fish market, into the frying pan and into your mouth. But it is possibly the world’s most delicious fast food. You cannot merely buy your crisp fried Bombay Duck, you have to earn it. And, of course, it is never ever too late to get to know Sunila Patel.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, July 2007
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