Just as Bombay duck is not duck as the name would have us believe, I faced my moment of truth recently with the Welsh rarebit and Glamorgan sausage. As they say, you live and learn
The other day, we were hosted to a Welsh sit-down lunch at a premier hotel management institute in Hyderabad which was celebrating the Feast of St David. St David, we were told, was the patron saint of Wales and the Feast Day of St David which falls on March 1st is celebrated by Welsh wearing yellow daffodils (the national flower of Wales) and using leeks (apparently a national symbol of Wales, too) on the day.
As always, when it came to sit down meals hosted by faculty and students of the institute, the table decor, food & drink plating, service and hospitality standards were top-notch and as we sat down to our formally designated-by-name tables, I was elated to spot Welsh rarebit on the menu card , as I had been long intrigued by the name . The menu in turn had been designed by a Welsh chef who was part of the faculty of the institute’s partner colleges in UK.
But first, let me tell you about the amuse-bouche of the meal, the description of which was an oxymoron in itself. Glamorgan sausage bonbons were made with Glamorgan (a county in Wales) cheese and served with red onion marmalade. The menu listed them as "vegetarian sausages," which left me bewildered. I asked the student maîtres d's appointed for the occasion, who quickly checked with the culinary faculty. Chef Arun Mandal of IIHM Hyderabad, who created the meal with his students, explained that "Glamorgan sausages are indeed vegetarian sausages made of cheese, leeks, and breadcrumbs." They are traditionally made with Caerphilly cheese, a soft and crumbly cow's milk cheese that is white in colour and has a slightly sour flavour. In this particular case, the chef used Cheshire cheese. Sometimes, egg yolks are used for binding, in which case you wouldn't call them vegetarian. But with the word "sausage," one would think of pork or at least chicken. As they say, though, what's in a name? The Glamorgan sausages were crisp, cheesy, and delicious, and the red onion marmalade made for a delectable pairing.
The Cawl Cenyn, or chilled leek and potato soup with truffle oil and deep-fried crisp leeks, was topped with a crunchy cheese tuille that felt like heaven in a bowl. I don't think anyone at the table left this soup unfinished!
The moment I had been waiting for arrived, and for mains, we were served Welsh rarebit. All the exotic trappings I had envisioned for "rarebit" disappeared. Rarebit turned out to be melted cheese on toast and nothing else! The Dauphinoise Potato, made of thinly sliced potatoes baked in milk, cheese, and cream and resembling puff pastry, was much more delicious.
If you think that "rarebit" has rabbit in it (as the word rarebit is considered a corruption of the word), you may want to think again. Welsh peasants created Welsh rarebits as a substitute for rabbit, which they were not allowed to hunt on the estates of the nobility. The substitute was white cheese, which the Welsh have a historic fondness for because it is a cheap protein substitute for meat. The word "Welsh rabbit" was first recorded in 1725, but it was first used in 1781, so "rarebit" is often considered a corruption of the original word, which was considered a jocular expression for a dish sans meat.
The Bombay duck often evokes curiosity and confusion, especially outside India. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with ducks. In fact, it's a member of the lizard fish family due to its resemblance with the lizard and is native to the Arabian Sea. In its place of origin, Mumbai, it's popularly known as Bombil.
I first tried Bombil fry as a young adult in one of Mumbai's wonderful coastal seafood restaurants, such as Mahesh Lunch Home, Trishala, or Gomantak. The dish, with its crunchy exterior and tender interior, marinated in a zesty Malvani spice mix and coated with rawa or semolina, left an unforgettable impression on my taste buds and my heart. Served alongside a fiery green chutney and washed down with a glass of rich and spicy sol kadhi, a plate of piping hot and crispy Bombil fries is pure bliss!
The Koli fishermen's community uses Bombil as a dry condiment. They dry out huge amounts of bombil fish on their fishing nets in the sun and sometimes leave it to dry on bamboo poles that are secured with ropes. At most times, the fish is usually cleaned, deboned, and sun-dried before it is cooked as a crisp Bombil fry and sometimes made into a gravy using East Indian masala. Often sun-dried in salt, the dried Bombil has a crumbly texture and a salty aftertaste, which are now available across superstores in India.
One of the most intriguing theories behind the etymology of Bombil is that the fish was transported in large quantities to Bengal via the mail express train from the city of Bombay (now Mumbai). As the train carried mail or posts, the Bengali term for mail, "Daak," became associated with the fish and eventually corrupted by the British to create the name Bombay Duck. Interestingly, England was the largest consumer and importer of Bombay Duck outside India until 1997, when the European Commission (EC) banned it due to hygiene issues.
There are some food names, however, that have changed over the years. For example, Christmas mince pies, which were originally baked with minced meat and fat, are now filled with minced dried fruits, almonds, spices, sugar, and fat. Despite the name, there's no meat in them.
In conclusion, food is an exhaustive subject, and one worth discussing is: What's in a name? It tastes as good, whether it's Welsh rarebit or Bombay duck. And no, we're not talking about rabbits or ducks!