Koli Cuisine


Food plays a fundamental role in all human cultures. It is not just a means of sustenance but also serves as a means of expressing oneself, connecting with others, and preserving the cultural history of a region or community. It is a way of life that is passed down through generations, an intangible heritage. Drawing from these historical and cultural roots, the food serves as a recollection of bygone eras, and simultaneously, the related cooking methods and social conventions provide invaluable insight into the values and material conditions of the people making it. Food encourages understanding and variety among cultures. People can learn about and appreciate various cultures through food. In today's world, food frequently serves as the focal point of several social events like weddings, birthday parties, and get-togethers. Food preparation and sharing have the power to unite people and foster a sense of connection. Using age-old culinary techniques that have been handed down through the years, traditional cuisines are frequently produced with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Consequently, they are typically higher in nutrients and healthier than processed foods.

The Koli fishing community is a remarkable example of these ideas in practice. Koli cuisine rose to popularity with the introduction of the Koli Seafood Festival in Versova in 2006. Since then, it has opened a new avenue of entrepreneurship for the Kolis in the catering and food service industries, selling traditional food whose recipes and cooking techniques have been passed down for generations.

This festival was so well received that the Koli community was asked to conduct the festival not just once but twice or thrice a year. People were so fond of the dishes that they wanted to have them regularly. Subsequently, various Koli women started their own catering businesses, while some began to host diners in their homes to provide an authentic Koli culinary experience. One such person is Harsha Tapke, a fisherwoman and entrepreneur from the Versova Koliwada of Mumbai. Tapke has been selling fish for decades at Versova. She partnered with Authenticook to host ‘Dine with the Kolis’ in 2016.[1] This program was held on weekends and continued until the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tapke and her mother and sisters have hosted thousands of people seeking a genuine Koli dine-in experience. Her husband, Rajhans Tapke, had proposed the idea of selling local Koli food to make optimal use of their catch and was one of the organizers of the first seafood festival in Versova in 2006. This would also help open the culinary world of the Kolis to other people. Hosting about 10 to 20 people on weekends and serving them authentic Koli food, Tapke says that people loved the cuisine and enjoyed the food she served. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown and other restrictions in 2020, these events had to stop. However, since 2022, Tapke has started taking orders for home deliveries of Koli food. She is regularly invited to hotels and restaurants as an instructor. There, she teaches the chefs the intricacies of the Koli cuisine and hosts food popups and Koli food events. The Tapke family (Tanay Tapke, Harsha Tapke, and Rajhans Tapke) run a YouTube channel called ‘Bombay State Fisheries.’ The channel shares information about seafood and the Kolis of Mumbai as well as videos of authentic Koli seafood recipes.

Well-known and lesser-known dishes of the Kolis

Koli food can be best described as simple, fresh, and wholesome, full of flavour and taste. It has two main elements: the Koli masala and the seafood. Garlic, tamarind, and kokum (Garcinia indica) are essential ingredients in Koli cooking. Kokum, or wild mangosteen, is a small red fruit that turns reddish-purple when ripe. It grows primarily in the Western Ghats region of India and is used as a souring agent and an alternative to tamarind in coastal cuisines. The use of fresh coconut is limited to shellfish, crab and sweet dishes.

Koli food would not have its soulful taste without the Koli masala called bhukni. The bhukni adds a strong flavour to the Koli dishes, especially curries. Koli women prepare this powdered spice blend annually in huge batches. Tapke says that they make around 20 kilograms of the bhukni each year. Made every year after the festival of Holi at the beginning of summer, this masala lasts its makers for almost a year. Over 20 spices are used to prepare the bhukni, and their proportions are dictated by the family recipes of the Koli women. Apart from the five to seven different kinds of dried red chillies, some of the spices used to prepare the bhukni include tej patta (bay leaf), jeera (cumin), coriander seeds (dhane), cinnamon (dalchini), cloves (lavang), black pepper (kali miri), dried turmeric (halkund), among others.

Being fisherfolks from Mumbai, seafood is naturally the most prominent part of the Koli diet. While dishes with prawns and pomfret have been popularised by restaurants, the Kolis love all kinds of seafood.[2] The Kolis consume all varieties of fish. During the monsoon, when fishing is prohibited by law and stopped due to harsh weather conditions, they switch from fresh fish to dried fish. Dry fish dishes are also had for breakfast. Apart from fish, rice is another major constituent of the Koli diet. Fish curries are called kalvan or ambat by the Kolis. ‘The ordinary Koli meal consists of curry (ambat), rice, fried fish, and rice cakes’, mentions The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island.[3] The Gazetteer was compiled in three volumes by S. M. Edwardes in 1909 and provides information on several aspects of the region.

Served with the kalvan or fried fish is the Koli tandlachi roti or tandlachi bhakri. These rice bhakris are made by slowly adding rice flour to boiling water in equal parts. This mixture is carefully stirred and mixed for a minute or two until it comes together. Once done, it is kept aside for a few minutes until it becomes cool enough to knead. While still warm, the dough is kneaded until it becomes soft and pliable. Small balls are portioned and flattened into discs by hand, with a little bit of water. Once the desired thinness is achieved, this flattened disc of dough called the bhakri is cooked on a hot pan on both sides.

A specialty only found in the Koliwadas of Mumbai is the dish called bamboo ke bombil. [4] The main ingredient required for this dish is partly dried Bombay ducks, thus making it a popular dish in winter when the sun is not harsh. Fresh Bombay ducks or bombil are cleaned in the morning and left to dry on valantis or bamboo racks. Around four in the evening, these bombil are taken off the bamboo racks and then used to prepare bamboo ke bombil. The dried ducks are gently washed with water and then transferred to a pan. Chopped garlic, green chilli, turmeric powder, Koli masala and oil are then added to the pan and mixed with a little bit of water and salt. Once ready, this mixture is cooked with a lid on for about 15 minutes. It is garnished with chopped coriander and served with bhakris.

The stuffed or bharlela paplet fry is a dish that is a quick and easy-to-make fried fish recipe. To make this dish, paplet (pomfret) is rubbed with salt and turmeric. A lateral cut on the fish allows it to be generously stuffed with a paste made from roasted coconut, coriander, chilli, garlic, and ginger. This stuffed fish is shallow fried in hot oil on a pan. It is cooked on all sides until it is nice and brown. This stuffed fried fish is best served with onion and lemon.

Fish curries made of paplet, ravas (Indian salmon), bangda (Indian mackerel), halwa (black pomfret) or surmai (Indo-Pacific king mackerel) are commonly served in restaurants. However, few know about the mix kalwan, a Koli lunch dish. It is a curry made of bombil, mandeli (golden anchovy) and kolambi (prawns). To prepare the mix kalwan, crushed garlic and chopped chillies are stir-fried in oil. To this, bhukni, turmeric powder, salt, water, and kokum or turmeric (depending on availability) are added. Once it comes to a boil, the prawns are added, followed by bombil and mandeli. The cooked curry is garnished with coriander.

Another recipe called the bomblacha tawa, or the bombil chilli, highlights the same three ingredients: bombil, mandeli, and kolambi. These, along with finely crushed garlic, chopped green chilli, oil, bhukni, turmeric powder, and kokum are mixed in a pan. After adding a little water to the mix, it is put on flame and cooked with a lid until all the water dries out. The water released from the fresh bombil aids in cooking the mandeli and the prawns. Unlike the kalwan, this dish is served dry, that is, without gravy. Another popular dry dish found in most Koli households is the sukkha bombil batata. The recipe calls for onions, sliced potatoes, green chillies, garlic, bhukni, turmeric powder, salt, oil, water, and dried Bombay duck (washed and soaked in water). Once all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, it is covered and cooked for about eight to ten minutes until all the water dries out. Once it is ready, it can be garnished with coriander when served.

When asked about vegetarian Koli dishes, Tapke answers that if they are not fasting then they add prawns to vegetable dishes.[5] Adding prawns enhances the taste of the dish. Tapke mentions that there is one dish that has become popular among the Kolis. It is the papdichya shenganchi bhaaji. Papdichi chya shenga or valachya shenga refer to flat green bean pods. The recipe and preparation for papdichya shenganchi bhaaji is similar to sukkah bombil batata. However, it substitutes the bombil with sliced potato. Tapke says that because the two dishes are cooked in the same way, she does not miss the taste of fish as much on the days of the fast.

The Kolis do not have elaborate or special recipes for breakfast. The leftover fish from the previous night’s meal are reheated and eaten with bhakris for breakfast.

Sweets are made during festivals, weddings and auspicious or important occasions. Gharya, sweets made from all-purpose flour, is a necessity during Koli weddings. To make the gharya, equal parts of flour and sugar are mixed with oil, gram flour and a bit of bhandara. Bhandara is the holy turmeric sacred to the god Khandoba. The bhandara is added with the thought that the food will turn out well with god’s blessings (‘devacha krupe ne changla banel’).[6] Oil is added to the dry ingredients and mixed well. Once all the ingredients are mixed, water is added gradually to make a dough. The dough should not be runny. Sesame seeds and dry fruits of choice are added according to one’s preference. The prepared dough is set aside for at least one hour. Once the dough is well-rested, it is divided into small balls. These balls are turned into flat discs (like puris) deep-fried in oil or ghee.

Another famous Koli sweet is the punnya or karanjis made especially during the festival of Narali Pornima (Coconut Day). Narali Pornima marks the beginning of the fishing season. Prayers are offered to the sea on this day to ask for calm waters, protection for the fishermen and a bountiful catch by making an offering of a coconut.

The stuffing of the karanji is made from grated fresh coconut, coconut water, grated nutmeg, cardamom powder, jaggery, ghee, and dry fruits like almonds and raisins. These are cooked until the liquid evaporates, resulting in a nice brown dry stuffing. To prepare the outer covering of the karanjis, ghee is boiled in water, and the boiled liquid is added to all-purpose flour and kneaded into a fluffy dough. Small balls are made from this dough, rolled flat, and then stuffed. The karanjis are shaped by hand and deep-fried in oil until golden-brown. The prepared karanjis are first offered to the sea before being shared among members of the family.

Food is a repository of shared community knowledge and experience. As such, it can empower communities, as has been the case with the Koli community. Over the past two decades, the success of the Koli Seafood Festival has helped bring this fishing community’s cuisine to a broad audience and paved the way for several budding entrepreneurs.


[1] Uchil, ‘Mumbai food: Savour authentic Koli cuisine at a fisherwoman's home.’

[2] Harsha Tapke, interview with the author, March 9, 2024.

[3] Edwards, The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. 1, 227

[4] Korgaonkar, ‘A little known winter delicacy of Mumbai.’

[5] Harsha Tapke, interview with the author, March 9, 2024.

[6] Harsha Tapke, interview with the author, March 9, 2024.


Uchil, Shraddha. ‘Mumbai food: Savour authentic Koli cuisine at a fisherwoman's home.’ Mid-Day. 2016. https://www.mid-day.com/mumbai-guide/mumbai-food/article/Mumbai-food--Savour-authentic-Koli-cuisine-at-a-fisherwoman-s-home-17558164. Accessed March, 2024.

Harsha Tapke (Fisherwoman and entrepreneur), in discussion with the author, March 9, 2024.

Edwards, S M. The Gazetteer of the Bombay City and Island. Vol.1. Cosmo Publications, 1909.

Korgaonkar, Bhushan. ‘A little known winter delicacy of Mumbai.’ Mint Lounge. 2022. https://lifestyle.livemint.com/food/cook/a-little-known-winter-delicacy-of-mumbai-111642505525684.html. Accessed March, 2024.