A Visit to a Kerala Fish Market

Over 4,600 miles of sea lap the shores of India, resulting in coastal cuisine that is laden with fish. Fish species and preparation vary around the country, but one thing that binds coastal Indians is their insistence that their region knows fish best. Sandeep’s family is from the southern coastal state of Kerala and mine is a mix of Mumbaikers and Goans, both coastal. Our entire family is programmed to love fish – raw, fried, grilled, cured, dried, pickled – we’re up for anything with gills or shells.  For an entertaining and educational journey about fish in India, read Following Fish with an empty stomach. In it, Samanth Subramanian offers a colorful collection of investigative fish-oriented stories from around the country.

Kerala is particularly fish rich, as it has the added bonus of rivers and backwaters that sparkle with fresh water gills. No day is complete at Sandeep’s parents without fish. It’s acceptable fare for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

Curious to get closer to the source, we decided to go fish shopping. We left at the crack of dawn, to make sure we got the freshest of the day’s catch. Even with Sandeep’s Malayalam, we knew we would stand out at the local market, so asked a neighbor to go with us. Uncle, as he is called, loves the bottle. So when we asked him last night to be our guide, it was clear that his ability to make it was correlated to the night’s consumption. He was up bright an early, along with his booming voice and confident gait. Uncle knows everyone in town and everyone in town knows not to take him for a ride. He’s the kind of guy you want on your side of a fish market negotiation.

The local fish market is in the pocket of a country road. It consists of about 20 stalls, with obediently stacked fish awaiting direction from enthusiastic vendors.

Each vendor specializes in one or two types of fish. Fish butchers and shellfish pickers are scattered among the stalls.

Uncle boisterously negotiated at every stall. The stalls organize their catch with freshest up front, and yesterday’s catch is discounted 25%. In a feat of nature, some fish were still moving, in rhythmic determination to make it back to the backwaters. This is clearly fresh stuff.

The stars today were pearl spot, snapper, sharks and several varieties of sardines and mackerel. We were overwhelmed at what to buy and let Uncle dictate the way. When we settled on a type of fish, Uncle checked the gills (ruby red) and eyes (firm and clear) and weighed the selection. The purchase was then passed on to butchers, who gut, de-bone, fillet and cube away on solid tree stumps.

We came home with two huge snappers ($8), two kilograms of sardines ($2), and one kilogram of freshly shucked crab meat ($1).  We wanted a break from masala-fried fish and fish curry, so decided on grilled snapper for dinner.

Tomorrow’s lunch will be flash fried sardines with a squeeze of lemon. Clams stir fried with coconut and tropical spices will grace the dinner table the day after. We can’t get enough fish.

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