Make dried fish while the sun shines | Sunday Observer

Make dried fish while the sun shines

29 December, 2019
TAIL WIND: A dried fish maker lines up freshly salted-washed fish on the sun.
TAIL WIND: A dried fish maker lines up freshly salted-washed fish on the sun.

Meka den visabeejayak wela (This has become a germ, now), lamented a middle aged fisherman while I was taking photographs of the dried fish makers on the Negombo beach. It took me a while to understand what he said. Probably, he referred to the number of student photographers who usually come to the Negombo Lagoon to train their lens to capture the stunning images of the fisherfolk.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on the Negombo beach during my visit to the Lellama fish market at Duwa. Walking towards the sandy shore passing the Dutch Fort of Negombo, I caught a glimpse of the dried fish trade which comes alive with a character of its own. The vast stretch of sandy beach is scattered with neat rows of fish on gunny mats, drying under the scorching sun.

It’s a smell that many would label unpleasant. But it’s what a group of people has been breathing in, all their lives. They make a living, making dried fish on the Negombo sea beach. There are a few karawala mudalalis (dried fish traders) who run a thriving business here.

SUN AND SEA: A dried fish maker at work under the harsh sun on the sandy beach in Negombo

A group of dried fish makers with wrinkled hands, clean and preserve the fish with a difference – they take their time on each piece, but it’s worth it.

“See that slope over there?” one of them point to the beach further up running behind the sea shore. “We walk there at least 100 times a day to dry the fish.”

From January to April the dried fish makers of Negombo are on their feet; they make most of their income for the year during the first three months, which is abuzz with the sale of their products in makeshift outlets. The young men and women working on the heap of salted-fish apply salt to one batch. They pile the lot on the sun-kissed sandy beach to dry. The owner who looms around, sits on a chair, watching their every move. Women with their heads wrapped in towels to protect themselves from the heat, weave a carpet of silvery fish a little distance away.

“It takes three days to make dried fish,” explained the young maker. The day’s catch that ends up unsold is brought to the stall making dried fish. “We get to work immediately. We clean the fish, apply rock salt, and put them out to dry. The next day, we wash them thrice and brush with soft water in a tank. This way, all the excess salt gets washed away. We spread them out for a couple more days. The dried fish is then ready to be sold,” adds one maker.

During the three days that the fish are dried, the men and women who readied them, wait in the small makeshift stalls taking cover from the scorching heat. The harsh rays of the sun play a crucial role in their lives. The more the sunlight, the quicker the products are ready for the market.

Most dried fish traders try to make their products to quality. “What I prepare has less salt,” says Stanley Hewage, a trader. “I prepare the dried fish the way my family and I would eat; I ensure that the end product is not too salty since too much salt could damage one’s health,” he adds.

Stanley points to the skipjack (Balaya) heaped in a basket. “The fish gleams because it has less salt. I can add more to increase the weight of the dried fish so that I make more profit. But I don’t want to be unethical.”

The traders also run makeshift retail outlets near the sea beach that sell fresh dried fish from skipjack (balaya), magra, and seer to anchovies (keeramin). Stanley’s stall boasts a variety. “Keeramin and prawns are the most sought-after,” he explained. “We sell a kilo at Rs.1,000.” Fresh keeramin, however, is cheaper. “The price is for the work we put in,” he says.

Dried fish has an acquired taste. “If it is prepared well, no dish can match it. If you eat a bowl of rice with fish, you will eat two with dried fish,,” smiles Stanley. “It’s like mango pickle. Even a boring meal would turn out to be a feast.”

The sun climbs higher as the day progresses. But, nowadays, the weather is unpredictable. Every patch of sandy shore that the sun pecks at on the Negombo shore is covered with dried fish.

Women gather baskets of them from a carpet near the wharf. It’s a telling spectacle – the shimmering dried fish and its wizened maker. But just as I’m about to click a picture, she turns her face towards the ground.

The Negombo fisherfolk, the fish market and dried fish making beach are a haven for foreign tourists as well as young Sri Lankan students who study photography. They train their lens towards the dried fish makers on the Negombo shore who never would call out “don’t take pictures” even though they are drying in the sun.