The waves have a way of inspiring and captivating the human soul. Perhaps they gently remind us that life is a relentless journey into the unknown. For us, blessed citizens of an island nation, the sea and her shores have impacted us in many ways. As for myself, there is an element that is even more intriguing within the sea itself, and that is indeed the varied choice of fish and all other edible life form under the spectrum of seafood! Whilst many folks enjoy a succulent dish, the greater experience is certainly in the buying process.
My late father was a man who had mastered the skills of both bargaining and more importantly identifying the right kind of fish, due in natural season. I recall with much delight the days we used to go to the beach in Mutwal (Colombo 15), walking along the harbor and the short cut via College Street. This was a fisheries harbor, and hence hundreds of small fiberglass boats and canoes would keep invading the shores, laden with so many kinds of fish. The sea-going community had its own rules and customs. The rustic statue of a Christian Saint, rose above the seaweed covered rocks, a silent sentinel of hope and divine protection. These humble yet bold men took to navigation like dolphins. I walk along the shore, in earnest anticipation, as the pungent scent of fish permeates the morning air.
An old man, his skin tanned by the radiant sun, keeps uncoiling a green net, proudly displaying a ‘thora’ fish its blue flesh deflecting the sunglight. A dozen or more swordfish are for sale on the adjacent boat. A cynical ‘Malu mudalali’ clad in a white sarong and shirt, his teeth stained red by betel, scouts around. Under his arm a black leather pouch, filled with money perhaps, or more betel leaves! A basket draws my attention and it holds captive live sea crabs. A young girl boldly takes each crab and rapidly ties its defiant claws with string. Beside her a well nourished cat yawns, probably contemplating what fish would end up on his platter. A pyramid of sprats keeps piling up on the other side, as another boat has just come ashore, with its oil lantern still aglow.
This serene, yet busy atmosphere is suddenly halted as a crowd seems to have gathered. In the midst stood a fat woman, who probably would respond to a name such as Rosalyn, Imelda or Elizabeth akka. Her wholesome figure, further accentuated by large breasts, (which would put Hollywood celebs to shame!) and hair blowing in the wind was at her wits end, so it seemed. She was accusing her husband, in uncouth Sinhalese, with the tenacity of a black panther. He-a rather timid looking thin soul-remained silent as the other wadiya women also vented their judgment. At this important juncture, my father wisely summoned me away! As I turned back I saw a fish being thrown at the accused, amidst hooting. Peace is restored for the moment.
We run into our neighbors’ Uncle Tudor and Uncle Royston, the Air Force boxer par excellence. I am somewhat taken aback as we encounter a large helpless turtle, ensnared in a nylon net. Frenzied crows flew about. This poor creature had been accidentally dragged ashore. Turtles are endangered and protected. Reluctantly the fisherman had to cut his net and loosen the dazed turtle, who finally managed to enter his ocean domain.
Away from the selling and buying, were others who wielded large knives and obligingly cut your fish into desired portions for a small tip of coins. They had cast iron buckets where they collected the fish heads and roe (fish eggs). The fish head curry I tasted in Jaffna last year was a culinary masterpiece. The lessons learnt on the beaches of Mutwal have been very useful. When I began my hotel career at a resort, I used to accompany the head chef to the golden beaches of Negombo in our quest for fresh fish, and I was able to show him my prowess in purchasing. In the recent past going to the Dehiwala beach with my uncle Justin from Canada, who has a lust for ‘Gal Malu’ (red mullet) and also loved to haggle. Today many obtain their fish from frozen seafood counters. My dad has gone beyond the golden shores. For me the bustling seashore, adorned with nets is a preferred choice. The candid comments and harsh humor of the fishermen is entertaining. These encounters have taught me a valuable lesson, and that is to be content with what your nets yield, for each day. You can always aspire for tomorrow’s catch!