When the skies open up, there is a huge change in the food menu of coastal India. The dip in availability of fresh fish can be disappointing, especially in homes where a fish curry or fish fry is a dinner table staple. The next best option is dried fish. While you may wrinkle your nose at the suggestion, there are loads of dried fish fans across the coast -- Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Bengal, etc. Even the northeastern states love their versions of dried fish.
Mumbai has its fish folk, the kolis string up the Bombay ducks, sting rays and mackerels in the hot summer sun, to have them toasty and dry before the dark clouds roll in. Similar scenes are seen across fisher folk homes, terraces are taken over by fresh catch strung out to dry in the month of April and May. You know you are close to the sea, because you can smell the salt not just from the sea, but from the drying fish.
In Goa, the fisherwomen start slitting mackerels and sting rays by the kilo, as early as October. The gutted fish is cleaned, stuffed with rock salt and laid out to dry under the blazing sun. The fish is best air-dried in the open. And it is not just fish that gets its time in the sun. Kokum peels, raw mango slices and even fresh pork sausages are kept to dry out in the sun from February to May.
The ritual of preserving fish this way goes back centuries. The preparing for monsoon was all about taking stock of provisions that would be needed for the long dark wet months. Monsoons mean limited mobility, and the preparations started way before the grey clouds gathered. This sale of dried provisions would be celebrated in a feast, Purumentachem Fest. ‘Purument’ comes from Portuguese word for provisions or supplies. Usually on a Sunday in May, there is a fair and streets in market areas will have stalls that sell dried pork sausages, kokum sollam or peels, salted fish – mackerels, sting rays, shark meat, small dried prawns -- sold in packets or squished together and sold like a patty, bottles of Parra - dried fish pickled in vinegary masala pickled mackerel, dried mango slices to be used in curries, dried large prawns, pickled vegetables and fruits, rice for kanji rock salt, papads, pickles made from local berries, fruit (jackfruit, mango or jamun) jams and port wines.
These markets are filled with pungent flavours, these packets of dried fish and spices carry a rich umami flavour. You only need a bit of the dried fish, a quick wash to remove excess salt and you can soak it in a bowl of water to get a tangy rich fish piece for a quick stir fry or to add to your curry.
There are loads of quick go-to recipes especially in Goan cuisine when it comes to dried fish. If you are in a hurry you can take a small dried mackerel, smear it with coconut oil and roast it a bit on an open flame. Then use a pestle as you beat off the dried smoked flesh off it on a chopping board. The smoked meat can be mixed with a bowl with a teaspoon of coconut oil, chopped green chillies, a dash of vinegar. You can mash this together or just toss it. Do not add salt as the fish is already quite salty. This is an easy side dish to go with rice and curry. The Kismur, a dried prawn salad is another monsoon favourite. Toss dried shrimps in some hot coconut oil in a pan, till they turn red and crunchy. Do not let them turn black. Take them off into a plate to cool. In the same pan fry a small bowl of chopped onion till translucent. In a large bowl, tip in the pan-fried dried prawns, the lightly fried onion, some freshly grated coconut, vinegar, a pinch of turmeric, chopped coriander, tiny pinch of salt and mix it well. This salty, sweet and pungent Kismur is the perfect umami kick you can hope for as you tuck into lunch, watching the rain come down.
The pickled, dried and salted foods are testimonies to the love and care our grandmothers took of us. They saved up for a rainy day, when refrigerators and online shopping was not around to keep our larders stocked. There was lots of thought, lots of care to keep things nutritious and tasty when it would be difficult to move around looking for fresh fish or meat. Dried fish smells are not always unwelcome, they remind you to stock up.
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Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.