Negombo’s salted delights | Daily News

Negombo’s salted delights

Fish drying on the beach
Fish drying on the beach

For centuries this island nation has relished the taste of fresh fish. Our seafood beautifully cooked in spices has attracted discerning guests from all over the world. In the recent past, owing to the spread of Covid-19 from one of the major fish markets there has been undue paranoia about consuming fish. This is one element within the greater realm of the fish industry. In this narrative I hope to bring out the dried fish industry that flourishes in areas like Negombo, Trincomalee and Mannar, with memories of visits to the Negombo Fish Market. The town of Negombo is famous for its beachfront hotels, Catholic churches and bountiful fish.

To many people who go in search of fresh fish, the market of Negombo is a seafood lover’s paradise. About two kilometres from the fresh fish market is the busy dry fish processing area on the beach. As we got down from the trishaw, the pungent smell of drying fish permeated the air. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary mounted on a pedestal, as most folk engaged in this enterprise are devout Catholics. For as far as my eye could see there were rows of drying fish that was heavily salted. After finding a path to walk we met Roshan, a young man. He was busy turning the sprats with his bare hands. He greets us and explains, “As you see, we make the best dry fish in the country here. We get the fish from the boats. We wash the fish and then coat them in salt. The sun is so intense these days that the fish dry completely in a few days.”

There are others around Roshan, young men bending and turning the fish. They add, “You may have eaten jardi. In this process we immerse the larger cuts of fish in a mixture of brine, saffron and gorraka. After a few days in a barrel, the fish is fully fermented. It goes down well with rice.” This item is not often featured in authentic Sri Lankan culinary festivals. It captures that exotic island seafood appeal.

Another young woman is walking amidst the rows of fish. Her robust figure indicates her strength as a result of carrying baskets of dried fish. She says, “Sir, we work hard in the hot sun. We are also young people like you, yet at times we face the social stigma of being fisherfolk. We do this work as this has been the family tradition for generations. Perhaps in the future it may change.” The young woman explains that during the rainy season they don’t get work and at times the fish in the process of drying can go stale and they would incur a loss. As we walked along this maze of deep-sea delights, we spotted a young man and his uncle carrying a basket of fish on a pole. This pair moved back and forth. Along the left side of this beach are a few shops. Some vendors were selling baskets – used to carry the dry fish. Others are selling long reels of coir-woven rugs, on which the fish is spread out to dry. A tiny kiosk sold plain tea.

The pot-bellied man behind the counter grins and displays his teeth, stained red by chewing betel. A well-nourished calico cat was observing everyone. Further along the beach a group of women are cutting and filleting large fish. A young girl wearing a silver cross on a chain giggled as she showed us the sharp knife with which, by years of experience, she cut away with dexterity. After this the fish is immersed in cold water. A young man came towards me. His name is James, the name is reminiscent of one of the disciples of Jesus – and many of them were indeed fishermen. James carried the washed fish and began to rub each fillet with a hand full of salt. Crows hovered around expectantly.

This is the vital part of curing the fish. The fish heads are discarded and collected in a large barrel. When asked about prices, they admitted of selling only to wholesale customers, although there were a few small shops. The youth said that the ‘fish mudalali’ is the one who decides the price at the daily auction. Like the defiant Alpha male in the food chain, these dominating businessmen control the prices, making profits. The young people working in this enterprise begin their day at 7.00 am and work round the clock. They have to ward off intruding crows and other birds that try and swoop in for a free meal. After a hard day’s work, their primary aim is to wash the strong smell of dried fish from their hands.

Amidst the sweltering sun and hard work these youth have good attitudes and smiles. Their life is simple. They talk, work and drink plain tea. They share their rice and curry. They intercede seeking divine blessings. Hopefully in the future their dried fish will be sold in a more appealing way to domestic customers. As I said before, in comparison to meat, poultry and forms of seafood, dried fish has not been a desired choice on many domestic menus. The vast dry fish operation on the beaches of Negombo (and other areas in this island) is a must visit place for all who love seafood.

Besides when you purchase dried fish it is the most dependable seafood option during any crisis, and in comparison to fresh fish is in a distinct class of its own in a culinary sense.