Indian fish markets: For the love of fresh fish

Only a committed fish lover can understand the lure of an Indian fish market. The stacks of fish, fresh from the ocean, the accompanying aroma and the cacophony of sounds as the Koli women shout out their wares, cajoling and urging you in equal measures to buy their wares.

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Meanwhile you go around, taking a look at the fish, trying to discern the freshest of them all. Choosing the right kind of fish with the required degree of freshness is an art in itself and can never really equal purchasing frozen fish off the counter from a supermarket. The love affair of an Indian fish lover with the fresh fish from a fish market is so resilient that the flies, the stray cats and dogs nonchalantly strolling amongst the displayed fish and the total lack of hygiene (by Western standards) is blasely ignored.

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The distinct taste of the fried Pomfret, the eel-like Bombil or the Bombay duck, which tastes delicious when fried but is unparalleled when dried and then made into a curry, the Surmai, Ravas and the crabs are all there for the taking. Dried Indian fish has an extremely strong and overpowering smell, especially when cooked. It takes time to develop the taste for dried fish. However one visit to a dried fish market on a clean (difficult but not impossible), isolated sea shore will cure this resistance. The freshly, dried fish with the distinct aroma and especially the eager customers barely being able to hide their gluttony, impatient to get home with their fish to savour them, all add up to lower any existent resistance, making you curious and eager to be a part of the excitement. A passionate fish lover once exclaimed that she was willing to trade in all her expensive French perfumes for the whiff of a freshly dried fish.

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The trawlers and fishing boats come in early in the morning with their catch. The fish are then sorted, some of them (depending on the type) hung out to dry and then sent to the fish markets. A fish auction is held every afternoon at the Versova fish market in Mumbai. This fish market is so popular that a sea food festival is held every year here, where along with selling fresh fish, you can also sample it in different styles. A Goan style fish curry, fish fried in the Kerala style, or a crab curry in Malvani style – all yours for taking. What’s not to like?

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The Koli woman selling the fish looked a little disturbed when I asked her if I could click her picture. She refused but the two women sitting next to her happily obliged even asking me if the pictures would be displayed abroad. The Koli have traditionally been the fishing community in India and the Koli women in particular have been vastly stereotyped. Along with being known traditionally for their mildly aggressive behaviour they are also known for the distinct way in which they wear their saree and for always being immaculately dressed with flowers in their perfectly styled, oiled hair.

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When I caught a fishing boat coming in on Juhu beach, the fishermen were disarmingly eager to show me what they had caught. They willingly posed for photos, cracked jokes at each other’s expense and showed me the fishing nets full of tiny crabs, some of them still alive, which they skilfully plucked from the nets. The trawler was absolutely heaving with different varieties of fish. The fishermen pointed out a few unusual ones. Some fishing trawlers, each distinctly named and uniquely coloured could be seen sojourned along the beach, ready to set off the next morning.

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