Sucheta Dalal
A Fishy Tale
Every day, at about 3am, as Mumbai’s mad traffic reduces to a trickle, Vinod races his pick-up to reach the Mumbai International Airport’s cargo complex to collect a consignment of fresh sweet-water fish from Bangladesh. Having done so, he moves to Sassoon Docks in south Mumbai where his entire consignment will be picked up by retailers even before the sun has touched India’s eastern shores. Bangladeshi sweet-water fish conjures up mouth-watering culinary possibilities each surpassing the other. Perhaps, katla or rohu may be the mainstay of the Bengali daily diet, and bhetki and hilsa are known even to non-Bengalis, but there are others on the offer like parshe, aarmach, pabda, boal, chitol and maagur. The keywords are ‘fresh sweet-water fish’ which has committed takers – from individuals to speciality restaurants. The import of these Bangladeshi sweet-water fish to Mumbai alone is reported to be Rs1,000 crore per annum, and has contributed immensely towards the prosperity of fish importers and exporters.

Interestingly enough, China is becoming a big supplier as well. The Chinese have been importing prawns and crabs; in return, they have been sending us their version of catfish, which perhaps the discerning Bengalis may not even look at, but is a big hit with regular fish-eaters. Chinese fish have become some sort of a communication dilemma for sellers in Mumbai for they have no idea what most of them are called; they are commonly referred to by their size: bada, chhota and so on. The Bangladeshi and Chinese fish have kept Mumbai fishmongers ticking even during monsoons when, traditionally, the seas are not harvested because the fish are spawning.

Encouraged by the burgeoning demand of the omega fatty-oil seekers and neo-fishitarians, fish traders are exploring further. In true globalised fashion, the rivers of Pakistan, Iran, Oman and even Iraq are being scoured in the West and, rivers in as far as Vietnam too are being explored for ‘fresh’ fish. By noon, Vinod’s work is done, cash counted, deposited in the bank, and next day’s airway bill collected as he heads home wearily, cursing the traffic. The only thing that keeps him sane is a plastic bag which contains a pair of white fish about 10 inches long from ‘somewhere’ and what was the fish called? Going by the imaginative naming conventions that the fish market has put in place, it could be called gora.

Marigold's Magic
Beta carotene is a pro-vitamin that easily converts into vitamin A. In many cases of vitamin A deficiency, it has been recommended by general physicians. It is naturally found in carrots (from which the carotene name has been derived) and other vegetables and some fruits as well. Apparently, its content is highest in the Indian marigold flowers (genda). Apart from marriages, these flowers are used for floral decorations of all sorts, from lecterns erected for political events to religious pulpits. Once used, they are contemptuously thrown into trash cans.

Globally, especially in Japan, vitamin A supplements are a vital part of the daily intake for the geriatric. It helps tide over some irksome failing of sight, bones and even minor intestinal bleeding in advancing years.

Some experts consider it as an anti-oxidant as well. At Prabhadevi, central Mumbai, Ajay Pendse, a doctor, has been scavenging for marigold flowers, for over four years. He made it his mission to collect as many marigold flowers as he possibly can and extract beta carotene which he exports to Japan. His day begins early with a visit to central Mumbai’s flower market where marigold flowers are sold in bulk. Making allowances for festival seasons, he is always the last buyer. He buys leftover flowers and transports them to his factory where they are used as raw material for the beta carotene extract. Demand in the Japanese market is high. His commitment is to provide around 100 tonnes of the extract annually. But the non-medicinal use of the flowers is so high that there are times when he can barely extract a few bottles. He cannot commit to an increased supply, as the raw material supply in this part of the world cannot be guaranteed. He tried convincing farmers in Panvel (on the outskirts of Mumbai) to grow marigold flowers, with little success. Had he not been a qualified doctor, several farmers would have regarded him as a loony-bin case. Nobody thinks of flowers as a potential vitamin supplement. At best, they are meant for gods, festivals and festive occasions and, finally, for some saucer-eyed love birds.

Mention this to the ‘government authorities’ and they look down upon you from their 5,000-year-old Ayurvedic cultural heights. With know-alls and do-littles in a position to dictate policies, vitamin supplements are farthest from anyone’s intake. But marigold flowers are not the only items that can be used for extracts. Green tea is another major anti-oxidant used in the West and the Far East. Each of these is a billion dollar-plus supplement but since these are not advocated by rock stars, they have not become wellness mantras. Wait till the authorities hear about calcium extracts from milk which are used as supplements too. Or walnut extracts. The list goes on (of course, Ayurveda has mentioned them all but then…). It will be another day when a business case will be made of the extraction process, patented and registered. Till then, it is flower power to the fore.


A Rainbow and a Whisper For The Deafblind

Tarika Vaswani of GiveIndia profiles a unique organisation that addresses the special needs of...

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Chilli King
It is hot. It is red. It is burning. With 400 known varieties around the world, chilli is the dominant spice in any Indian’s daily diet, thanks to Vasco da Gama.

Everyone who remembers elementary school history knows that Vasco da Gama discovered the spice route to India. It is never mentioned that he brought chillies along, thereby adding awesome firepower to the culinary variety of the sub-continent. And, today, we have the hottest chilli variety (on the Scoville scale) in the world growing in Tezpur, Assam called Naga Jolokia or Tezpur mirchi.

In a teeming metro like Mumbai, which is a melting pot of cultures, chillies are in ‘hot’ demand, all the time. Green chillies are probably the most-used ingredient in any Indian recipe, followed by red chillies which are widely used in powdered form. Such is the demand for red chilli powder that several unscrupulous traders have gone to jail for mixing red-coloured sawdust into it to beef up volumes and weight and earn a few extra bucks. In Mumbai, the chilli trade is mainly controlled by a person called Mirchi Seth. A native of Udupi, 58-year-old Mirchi Seth began his career as a waiter in an Udupi restaurant in Mumbai. He also doubled up as a carrier-boy for transporting vegetables from the Byculla market (in central Mumbai) to the restaurant. As the story goes, he seemed to have a special feel for green chillies and could pick the best of them by touch. The owner of the restaurant entrusted him with the purchase of vegetables, especially green chillies. Of course, Mirchi Seth then was called Gasper Serravo.

Serravo soon started getting better and better at selecting and buying chillies for his master. Soon, an entrepreneurial spark was lit. He teamed up with his brother and started selecting and supplying green chillies to several restaurants. Along the way, he realised that there was no single source of green chillies. Chillies came from different regions in different seasons. The popular cultivation areas of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra were used as seasonal sources to keep the chillies supplied to the ever-growing population of Mumbai and its extended suburbs.

Serravo’s big break came when the wholesale market shifted from Mumbai to Vashi. It was here that Serravo was able to come into his own because of the availability of storage space. Besides, he could pick up the entire crop from farmers and dump it into the godowns of Vashi and Navi Mumbai and then manage the demand from there. It also enabled him to book chillies directly from dealers across various states and supply them to a range of customers – from restaurants to vegetable vendors – thereby covering and capturing the entire value chain.

He even branched into the restaurant business and now owns the popular Hotel Navratna in Vashi. Serravo has been donating liberally to various charities, educational institutions and religious organisations but prefers to remain anonymous. Even today, his focus is chillies. They conjure up a magic for him. Now, like Harry Winston was to the global diamond trade, Serravo has achieved cult status in Mumbai’s chilli trade. It is said that, besides Maharashtra and Gujarat, he is supplying chillies to several southern states as well.

From South America to India, chillies have journeyed through exciting times. Christopher Columbus brought chillies to Portugal and mistook it for pepper because he had set out to discover India and trade in pepper and mistook chillies for the pungent black seeds. But today nearly a quarter of the world’s chilli produce comes from India. Besides, Indians are the biggest consumers as well. It is a journey well made from chilli to mirchi and from Serravo to Mirchi Seth.

Himalayan Malt, among the World’s Finest
Ever since Japanese distilleries won the top three spots in a ranking of the 20 best malt whiskies in the world, Indians have got a chance. Nikka’s Yoichi (a distillery) was chosen as the best single malt this year in England. Suntory, a Japanese distillery, has a label Hibaki, all of 18 years old, as the prize winner. Yamazaki, another label from Suntory, sells 20 times more cases in Britain today than it did just four years ago. Suntory was set up 80 years ago.

Can Indians ever, ever make the best bubbly? Of course, but it will not be called Champagne. Nor should it be called Pimpagne, as one highly imaginative wine-maker tried to label his wine made in Pimpalgaon, Maharashtra! It bombed. Better still, we could make malts. If the Japanese can, why not we? We do have fine brewing and distilling traditions and historians will always tell you about soma ras. Now, let us talk specifics. Can any distillery in India make the world’s finest malt whisky, which can, of course, compete with the traditional Lagavulins and Glenmorangie and also take on the Japanese as well as the rest of the world? It is not that India lacks the technology. The various malt-producing country manuals list about 14 active distilleries in India, while Japan has only about nine. Besides, Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh has one of the best traditional Pots and Column distillery. It was set up in the 19th century and is now owned by Mohan Meakins. The region is mountainous, spring water is said to come from melting glaciers and the grain too is said to be of great quality. The result has been a product called Solan No. 1. People who have had Solan No. 1 swear by it. They say it is among the best malts that can be had anywhere in the world. But, it is not readily available. Most of it is consumed by our defence forces and very few cases even make it from Kasauli to New Delhi. Why is it such a secret, when the world has decidedly converted itself into malt drinkers? And even some of the conservative distilleries in Scotland have been marketing and advertising their malt products across the globe. The coyness of Solan No. 1 is inexplicable. At least in wine, we have seen a determined and planned aggression. But a 19th century distillery up in the mountains, having an enviable track record in making malt, does not even have landmark bottles, like a 21-year-old single cask. Even the solitary distillery at Murree in Pakistan has started marketing its 21-year-olds and 18-year-olds across the globe. Pakistan? Yes. Sadly enough, Indians are lagging. Thankfully, beer makers do not suffer from such reservations, otherwise the brewing and distilling industry in India would be a well-kept secret. There is a need to compete in the international market and be acknowledged by peers. When you combine a rich tradition and a redoubtable product, a great label is born. Add a little bit of design and Solan No.1 would be jostling with Jura and Oban, at the world’s glitziest duty-free shops.

It is not just a bottle, but a part of a tradition, part of locale, tourism, and of craftsmanship that is being hawked. Indian malt ranking among the finest malts in the world is certainly do-able. It requires passion and imagination. To ignite that, sit back, take a bottle of any Indian malt, pour a drink, take a sip and then let the magic potion called the malt take over. The liquid gold can fire any dull sense into ecstasy. The rest is easy.

A veteran journalist Raghu Nandan Dhar has an easy knack of seeing everything in a different light.


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