The fish that is dried for this is technically known as “Harpadon nehereus.” It is native to the waters around Bombay.
It is a narrow fish, about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) long. It is fished for in November and December; the processing of it into a dried product goes from December until March.
For Indian markets, the fish are washed, split, boned and dried in the sun on bamboo pole scaffolds. For export markets, the fish is filleted, and the head, tail and fins are cut off. The bones are pulled out, and the flesh cut into rectangular pieces. The pieces are soaked in a water and 5% salt solution for a few minutes, then put on scaffolding outside for 40 hours to dry. Then they are put through a roller to compact them, then they receive a further 10 hours of sun drying. A great deal of the processing is done by small, independent fishermen.
The dried fish can be crumbled, and used as a condiment over curries and stews. In Britain, they like to batter and deep fry pieces of it. Bengalis prefer to have pieces of the fish cooked with eggplant and coriander.
It is uncertain where the English term “Bombay Duck” came from. There are of course many theories. Some say it was just made up because Victorians thought “bumla” sounded rude.
In 1996, a batch of seafood from India imported into Europe was found to be contaminated (some sources say with salmonella, others say cholera.) Consequently, in 1997, the EU slapped a ban on all seafood and fish from India unless it was processed in approved freezing and canning factories. This ban hit Bombay Duck, too. After negotiation with India, import of Bombay Duck was allowed again in 1998 provided that it was packed for shipping at a European approved packing station. It wasn’t until December 2000, however, that UK importers managed to find and seal a deal with a packaging firm in India that met European standards so that they could resume import.
BBC. Bombay Duck bounces back. 12 December 2000. Retrieved March 2011 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1066998.stm
Jury, Louise. Bombay duck off the menu – for good. London: The Independent. 14 August 1997.
Jury, Louise. MPs come to rescue of Bombay duck. London: The Independent. 17 December 2000.