Many have turned to dried fish as an alternative to the fresh variety during lockdown, with its versatility making it popular across the country
One of Jeslin Sleeba’s earliest and lasting food memories is watching her mother work a grinding stone, making chammanthi (chutney) of dried prawns, shallots, coconut red chilli and salt. “I remember the taste so vividly,” she says. Jeslin grew up in Muvattupuzha, near Kochi, where unlike today, fresh fish was not accessible every day and so dried fish was used instead — fried or as chutney.
Borne out of necessity, at a time when consumption depended on local catch, fish has traditionally been dried for no-fishing months. “Easy access to fish has changed all that, dried fish has now become infra dig. When you can get fresh fish from across the country, why would you eat unnakkameen (Malayalam for dried fish)?,” asks Chef Saji Alex, chef de cuisine at Kochi Marriott’s Kerala specialty restaurant Cassava, which has chemmeen dried prawn chutney on its menu.
With the pandemic making it more challenging to go to the market, people are once again turning to dried fish. “The process of drying involves enzymatic or microbial activity in the presence of salt. When packed and stored properly, dry fish has a shelf life of more than two years,” says Pradeep Kalidindi, who runs a seafood firm in Andhra Pradesh.
Dried fish has a strong flavour and an overpowering smell, which makes it an acquired taste. While smaller fish such as prawn/shrimp and anchovy are sundried, the process is different for fleshier fish such as king fish. Traditionally, cleaned fish would be rubbed with salt, packed in palm leaf baskets and hung to dehydrate; now machines do this job.
In Kerala and Tamil Nadu the preparations stick to template — curry, fry, and chutney. Bengal’s shutki maach is perhaps the most versatile take. The Bengalis believe that adding shutki elevates the taste of vegetables. For instance, shutki combined with brinjal or pumpkin is a popular version.
At Anwesha Banerjee’s home in Kolkata, the war between football clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan began about five years ago when she married Amlan, a Ghoti (Bengalis of West Bengal). That battle — this time for the humble shukti maach — moved into the kitchen. Popular varieties consumed by Bengalis are Bombay duck, shrimp, ilish and shidol. The sun dried fish was traditionally consumed by Bengalis of East Bengal (now Bangladesh), where Kolkata resident Anwesha Banerjee’s ancestors hail from.
“I have so many childhood memories associated with it. My husband though can’t stand its strong pungent smell,” she laughs, adding, “My favourite is shutki bata (mishmash or chutney). This is a fiery creation made with onion, garlic and chilli cooked in mustard oil. It tastes heavenly with steaming rice,” says Anwesha.
Bombay duck (bombil), christened thus by the British, is perhaps the most iconic dried fish. Dried bombil is commonly used to make pickles and added to curries in Maharashtrian households.
“Many households crumble the dried-and-salted fish and sprinkle it over their dal or rice to add a crunchy texture. While making bombil curries, we usually soak it for half an hour to rehydrate and soften the fish,” says Asavari Koli, a banker who is also a food enthusiast.
Soaking not only softens the fish, but also washes off the salt reducing its concentration. “Koli, Malvani, Konkani and Goan communities each boast their own distinct bombil preparation. The Mangaloreans use rava for coating while the Konkanis use rice flour. In Goa, the bombil is cooked using a mix of both rava and the rice flour. The Koli community use their signature Koli masala to cook bombil,” says Asavari.
Of all the recipes that she learnt from her mother, dried Bombay duck masala is her favourite. “Served as a starter, dried Bombay duck masala is a quick recipe using chilli powder, lemon juice, curry leaves and turmeric,” she adds. In Bengal, too, it is had as a starter: dried fish is roasted on charcoal, mixed with onion, green chilli, coriander and lemon juice.
Versatility at its best
Andhra Pradesh is one of the biggest manufacturers of dried fish in the country along with Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. In Visakhapatnam alone, over 5,000 fisherfolk, mostly women, eke out their livelihood by drying ribbonfish, lizard fish, sliver bellies, anchovies, crocker ray finned fish, goatfish, sardines and other pelagic fish. Not only are these exported to Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Bangladesh, they are also sent to other States such as Kerala.
Everyday, three to four tonnes of dry fish is produced on average in the region, which is enough for local consumption. During the season, the production goes up to 10 tonnes per day. The process, after salting fresh fish, takes three to four days to dry.
A taste of home
- Manik Deb, who lives in Nagpur, says the best shutki maach is the shidol type. A passionate cook who now takes care of an organic farm near Pench forest, Manik recalls cooking the shidol shutki brought all the way from Tripura by his friend. “Shidol or puti mach (pool barb fish) is kept in an earthen vessel and sealed properly before it is buried. It is left there for months to provide anaerobic conditions for fermentation,” says Manik. He prepares the shidol shutki jhaal cooked in mustard oil with onions and a generous dose of chilli, savoured with steamed rice. The pungent appetising aroma grows stronger when cooked. “Just ensure that all the doors and windows are closed while cooking,” chuckles Manik. (Nivedita Ganguly)
Among the regional favourites is the endu chepala vankaya (dry fish brinjal curry) — seasoned with urad and chana dal, mustard and curry leaves, it is best had with steaming hot rice. Vineela Raju, a resident of Visakhapatnam, says, “The dish is known for its robust flavour. It is prepared with a paste of tamarind, red chilli and asafoetida. I learnt this recipe from my grandmother who lived in the West Godavari district. It used to be prepared at a time when we did not get fresh fish in local markets. Now, it is a festive special in our household.”
Pride of place
In Tamil Nadu, fish laid out to dry in front of homes, roofs, and terraces is a common sight in fishing villages. At the bigger fish markets such as Kasimedu Fishing Harbour in Chennai, there are designated areas for the preparation of dried fish.
Raised concrete platforms arranged in rows by the quay, with ample space for people to walk in between them, and nearby, concrete tubs for soaking the fish with plenty of rock salt — this is what the dried fish area of Kasimedu looks like. Here, over 150 women are involved in the preparation, and all of them are members of the Karuvaadu Sangam (dried fish union).
Fisherman R Vinod from Odai Kuppam, Besant Nagar, says that women in his locality prepare dried fish with unsold fish, and those that don’t make the cut to the market. “They rub rock salt on to the fish, and let this sit for a day. Then, the fish is dried till all the moisture runs out,” he explains.
Vinod says that women are involved in the laborious process through the year. “Demand is high especially during the Tamil month of Aadi, since dried fish curry is part of the feast that follows a pooja that some people perform at home,” he explains.
For some varieties of dried fish, pricing can be the same as that of its fresh variant. “A kilogram of seer fish today, costs between ₹900 and ₹1,200. For dried seer fish, the price is ₹1,000,” says Vinod. “The pricing also takes into account the fact that for one kilogram of fish, we get only half a kilogram of dried fish.”
Nevertheless, those involved in the preparation stand to gain since their products are good for up to six months. “Kedacha varaikkum laabam (It’s a profit, however much we make),” he says, summing up the philosophy of dried fish from the fisherfolk perspective.
(With inputs from Nivedita Ganguly, Aishwarya Upadhye and Akila Kannadasan)