I have good reason to like seafood. From childhood on, a delicacy from the sea would often find its way onto my dining table with occasional reminder from Mom of the true nutritional value of the fish and how it helps to grow strong and wise. I do not dislike other kind of food (except anything that crawls or with feathers) nor do I love all sorts of seafood. Actually, if I wish to be selective, I could do so since my home State of Kerala in the South-western tip of India bounded by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, and a coastal line that stretches more than 360 miles long, has an abundant wealth of seafood.
Besides the lakes, ponds and paddy fields (where fingerlings are occasionally released), we have 41 west-flowing rivers here in addition to three east-flowing one and a continuous chain of lagoons and backwaters running parallel to the sea-coast. Then there are about 275 varieties of fish in India of which 175 species are reportedly in the coastal and inland waters of Kerala.
Far into the ancient times, the shores of Kerala saw the arrival of visitors and traders from afar. The sea grew into a decisive factor in the history of Kerala in the wake of the discovery of the monsoon trade wind around the first century A.D when a proper route cutting right across the Arabian Sea was established which enabled the marines to adopt the direct sailing from Aden in Yemen to Muziris in Kerala.
While a profusion of spices (1) went out in vessels like ‘dhows’; new religions, alien cultures and rulers breezed in. Looking back over the history of this State I note that, the people having come to terms with foreign influence were also remarkably tolerant of other people’s customs and ideas. And all along, this land strived to retain its natural beauty and resources.
Indian climate may broadly be described as tropical monsoonal climate. The southwest monsoon season of Kerala begins in early June and it coincides with the spawning season of majority of the fishes of the land, particularly shrimp.
To conserve the marine resources, more specifically, to prevent destruction of fish eggs and young fish from large-scale harvesting by fishing vessels, several studies had recommended that seasonal restriction is essential. Hence, fishing with trawlers or mechanised fishing boats is stopped during the breeding period, an annual feature since 1988 which blanketed 12 nautical miles of the sea from the Kerala coast.
Even though the ban would contribute to make the price of fish to soar, in an era of depleted oceans and endangered fisheries, the restriction on trawling is an appropriate and a responsible approach, especially when we read this together with reports that under pressure from deforestation, mining and the building of dams of the Western Ghats, an estimated 30 species have been lost over the past 60 years. In view of the welfare of marine resources and the numerous fishermen depending on the connected industry, the Government and state owned enterprises have set up ever-improving activities. Besides, the Church is also playing a good role for the welfare of the fishermen and their families.
At midnight of June 14 of this year, the annual ban on trawling came into effect which would give a bit of peace to some of those marine species swimming in the vicinity of Kerala. This 47 days break (until July 31) entitles the fishes to breed and groom and have a wonderful peaceful monsoon vacation in cooler waters when the ‘gentler’ Kerala is lashed with heavy rain and isolated thunderstorms.
As the monsoon drenches the highland, floods the midland and drowns the lowland of Kerala, soaking the thick forests, inundate agricultural fields and luxuriant growth of trees dominated by the coconut groves; the raging sea does its annual business to wreak havoc on the coastal life and encroach onto the sandy soiled shores and grab bits of land from the coastal belt.
With approximately 5,400 mechanised fishing boats registered in the State (2) now on compulsory holiday, thousands of fishermen, including some of those working in harbours and peeling sheds who lack material and educational advancement, face a period that is unlikely the best days of their lives.
Although such an annual period is foreseen; some fishermen make use of this period to sort out domestic matters and attend to maintenance of fishing units, while those with dilapidated finances seek temporary jobs elsewhere, all the while, ticking off the days for the ban to end to once again see their silhouettes reflecting off the water, to toil in their boats in the territorial waters – early in the morning, under the scorching sun, sometimes into the middle of the night while their women and children anxiously awaited their return with aches and pain in their heart and mind. Health is a gift those men took for granted – the energy they need for the tasks comes at the right time. It’s a unique personal connection that fishing creates between man and nature.
For these men, some trips are good, some not. And so, life at the sea is a buzz of many occasions, more smiles, less bitter or vice versa: the thrill of a good catch; the exhilaration when you hit Chakara (3); the extreme oppression of the weather and the strains of the job; the comradeship: its joy and pains; their mastery in the colloquial language laced with Portuguese and Jewish terminologies; their knowledge in the salient features of different kinds of fish and the taste of its roes; the happiness of seeing an occasional rainbow or a comet; of interrupted sleep on board, the constant alertness for warning signals of danger……
“Good timber does not grow in ease –
The stronger the wind, the tougher the trees”
Apart from observing from close quarters in harbours of Cochin, Vizhinjam, and Panaji, as well as from books and visual media, I have never set foot inside a fishing trawler. My cruise on board M/V Bharat Seema to the Lakshadweep Islands (India) and back was an awesome experience, especially to lie on the deck during the night and look up at the intense full moon glaring from the dark sky as the ship rolled from side to side shifting the wide horizon up and down. By far, I have seen the hustle and bustle of many beaches and markets of India including the Lakshadweep Islands, Thailand (Pattaya), Yemen (Hodeidah, Al Mokha and Aden), Italy(Venice), Portugal (Lisbon), Turkey (Istanbul) and few in England.
The wealth of imagery on some of these beaches is phenomenal. I have savoured the thrill of watching the arrival of fish laden boats to dock; observed the everyday scenes on the beach and the daily lives of the fisher-folks. These are human beings working alongside nature – in harmony with nature.
Having conversant with many in the field of fishing in Cochin itself, some of the stories they told have captured my imagination. The memories they stored away in their mental scrapbook: some spoke of the rhythms of their daily life as fickle and unpredictable as the sea; of their piscatorial gods of protection; the superstitions and their bravery. Once I heard a fisherman cooking up an anecdote of having seen a ‘stunner’ whale (Thimingalam) as big as the Venduruthy Bridge of Cochin (around 635 mtr); one spoke of an omen of misfortune about the crows while another about good aspects of seagulls believed to contain the souls of dead sailors.
There are fishermen who would not stop to count the number of fish they caught for fear that they will not catch no more on that day. A naturally right-handed fisherman, considered it unlucky to cast his line with his left hand. But one thing I read in a publication that I didn’t tell them for reasons you could comprehend is, if a fisherman had an (un-staged) quarrel and fight with his wife before going to sea, he can expect a good catch! What an idea!
In order not to miss the boat when the dark clouds gather under the sun, the seafood export-houses of Kerala do their annual stocking up (especially shrimps, Kerala’s “pink gold” much sought after in U.S.A, Europe and Japan) with the harvest of the sea well in advance to keep up with their regular outflow of exports. However, the dining tables around the State have no reason to panic about the fish factor. To substitute this shortfall due to the ban, Kerala’s good network of backwaters is breeding “nursery” for vast variety of fish, some of which the locals actually prefer more over those caught from the sea.
Exempt from the blanket coverage of the ban, the artisanal and peasant fishermen on canoes (traditional Vallom), with or without small motor, continue with their fishing activities in these backwaters traditionally rich with fish and clams or even venture out into the generally rough sea during the monsoon months to cast their nets at their own risk – while the trawler workers are saved from dangerous exposure to the rough sea due to the ban. In addition, freshwater fish is sourced from Tamil Nadu and from Aqua farms on the eastern coast of Andhra Pradesh.
Fresh and dried fish is a regular item on the dining tables in Kerala. With more than 70 edible varieties of sea beauties (4), Oh boy, this is heaven for a connoisseur of fish.
A preferred variety for many is the Green Chromide (Etroplus suratensis), a species of cichlid fish whose colour is most beautiful during the monsoon (June-September & October-November). A fresh and brackish water fish commonly found in South India and Sri Lanka, it is locally known as Karimeen (Eli-meenu/matak/ersa/erpe/eri menu/kaggalase in Kannada, koral in Bengali, Kundal in Odia), but also bears the name Pearlspot Fish due to the pearl-like white spots on its scales.
Distributed abundantly in large rivers, lakes, lagoons and estuaries throughout Kerala, especially at Alleppey (Alappuzha), this herbivorous fish has the perfect characteristics for fish-farming/Pisciculture (breeding, rearing, and transplantation of fish by artificial means). Karimeen commonly reaches 20 centimetres (7.9 inches) but the maximum length is twice that, a growth it achieves by feeding on filamentous algae, plant material, small worms/prawns and insects. Breeders are fed with conventional artificial feed prepared with rice bran, groundnut oil cake, etc. Even though fishing methods have continuously evolved and the opportunities for innovation have been especially good in recent decades, gillnets, which impose less impact on the environment, remain more prevalent in the local use to catch Karimeen.
Available throughout the year, many restaurants in Kerala cater dishes featuring the oval-shaped Karimeen as their star attraction in addition to other authentic dishes that forms part of Kerala cuisine (5).
One restaurant famous for Kerala cuisine, especially for Karimeen, is the Grand Hotel in Cochin where delicacies of this fish tops their Menu in different flavour and cooking methods (6). While cleaning this fish, after cutting off the gills with kitchen scissors, care has to be taken to not only remove it’s scales but also to remove a film of the skin with a sharp knife which can be done from the tail-end upwards, leaving a gleaming white surface.
It is served on board traditional tourist boats (Kettuvallams) (7) plying the scenic backwaters (a chain of interconnected rivers, lakes, inlets and canals) since its dishes forms part of an average tourist’s Kerala experience. Even Kerala has elevated Karimeen as the official fish of the State and to boost up its production and facilitate larger exports, observed 2010-11 as “The Year of the Karimeen”.
The restaurant of Grand Hotel is often filled with tourists resolute with their wish not to leave without savouring the good taste and flavour of this all-time favourite. This is also a preferred haunt of non-resident Keralites, especially those hailing from the Kuttanad region of Alleppey district who reminisce of their childhood at their houses beside palm-fringed rivers and lagoons where their mothers had displayed their culinary skills with this “upper-middle class” fish on their eating plates when it used to cost far less, unlike today when it is still dodging the cooking pots of the common man due to its overpriced cost.
Tradition and religion have played an important role in Kerala cuisine. Although it has a specialized local character of its own, Portuguese and British rule is evident in the cuisine of minorities like the Christians. In the heart of all this are the spices and every family has their own specialism in its mixture that is passed on from mother to daughter over the years.
Fish is a creative cook’s dream. Properly prepared, any palate will perk up at the taste of fresh fish. No doubt about it. Most of us have a favourite fish or seafood that is cooked in a certain way. From poaching to steaming to boiling to broiling to smoking to sautéing to grilling to frying, the ways for preparing fish are many.
With great seafood dishes ranging from appetizers, to soups to salads to pasta to burgers to curry to Sushi, cooking seafood right does require skills – especially when we consider the delicious, nutritious and healthy aspects of the meals.
Recently I came to know that the great opera tenor (late) Luciano Pavarotti shared a common interest with me. Like me, he loved to cook as well as eat. I learned of it the hard way when I was hitting singles during the last years of my stay in Yemen where fish is abundant but narrow on variety and availability of the right ingredients.
Later, the wonderful wealth of cooking techniques so graciously shared to us by some of the brilliant chefs we befriended during our outings enabled me to cook up some impressive dishes whenever I get into the kitchen where life sometimes makes up its mind. But it was Carina who taught me the secret of making a good court-bouillon which I find a fantastic base for lobster. Cooking and enjoying seafood can be quite fun with all the variety and the related ingredients we have here. As long as the fun lasts, we are glad we can make the most of the fish we buy. Until next time. Ciao, Jo
(1) Spices like pepper (Piper nigrum L/Kurumulaku), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum Maton/Elam), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum/karuvapatta/Elavangam), ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe/Inchi), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans/Jathikka), clove (Syzygium aromaticum/Grambu/Karayambu), turmeric (Curcuma longa L/Manjal), etc.
(2) Registered boats: Data according to a local newspaper.
(3) Chakara: When the temperature of the atmosphere increase, schools of poovalan shrimps living in the bottom of the sea rise up to the surface to enjoy the fresh water and coldness from the new rain. Another common explanation is that, the easterly approach of the south-west monsoon wind conjure up a current running perpendicular to the ebbs and tides forcing the subsurface water to come up with the fish swimming in the bottom. ‘Chakara’ is a rare phenomenon seen only in the coastal waters of Kerala between Kannur and Quilon during the southwest monsoon period. On June 24, 2013, a ‘Chakara’ of Poovalan Shrimps (Metapenaeus Dobson) appeared off the coast of Cochin. Another ‘Chemmen (Shrimps) Chakara’ occurred at Chavakkad, Trichur five days earlier to that when fleet of shrimps appeared a couple of kilometres off the coast.
(4) There are crustaceans like shrimps, lobsters, crabs; sharks and rays (Elasmobranchii); King fish/Seer fish/Indo-Pacific king mackerel (Scomberomorus guttatus/naimeen/ayakoora/varimeen), Indian Mackerel (Rastrelliger kanagurta/ayala), Indian oil Sardine (Sardinella longiceps/mathi/naichaala), Pomfret Silver/Black (Pampus argenteus/niger/aavoli), Striped Mullet (Mugil cephalus/Thirutha), Malabar blood Snapper (Lutjanus malabaricus/chempalli), Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus/tilapia), Tuna (tunnus albacares/euthynnus affinis/choora) and I don’t forget Dussumier’s ponyfish (Leiognathus dussumieri/mullen), et al.
(5) For details on Kerala cuisine: http://www.keralatourism.org
(6) Karimeen Molly, Karimeen Pollichathu, Karimeen Vevichathu, Karimeen Mappas, Karimeen Varutharachathu, Karimeen Fry, etc.
(7) Kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges. The present motorised houseboats are made of planks of jack-wood joined together with coir and coated with a caustic black resin prepared from boiled cashew kernels. It has covered accommodation facility with kitchen, built up using bamboo mats, sticks, wood of areca nut tree and coir for roofing and wooden planks with coir mats for flooring.
(8) Painting: “The King of Cochin riding on an Elephant, attended by his Nairs” by Portuguese traveller Jan Huygen van Linschote (1562-1611) – Source: Public Domain image in Wikimedia Commons
(9) Painting: “Overwinningh van de Stadt Cotchin op de Kust van Mallabaer – Victory over Kochi on the coast of Malabar” by Coenraet Decker (1650 circa-1685) – Source: Public Domain image in it.wikipedia.org
This article is dedicated to the memory of my late paternal grandparents, Anna and Joseph, great connoisseurs of seafood.
(Photos: © Manningtree Archive)