Dried Fish: The Ubiquitous Ingredient In Various Parts Of India
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If we are to understand India’s pan-national character, you’d only have to look at the love people have for dried, smoked, fermented fish. Of course, dried fish is not a new phenomenon, from the times of the Roman empire and even in Icelandic cultures, people were smart enough to figure out that fresh fish doesn’t last forever. The water inside freshly caught fish would turn into breeding grounds for bacteria, yeasts and molds which would turn the produce inedible in a matter of days. The way to counter that was to remove the water from the fish entirely to the point that it's hardened and devoid of any moisture. Different regions of the world reacted to the problem with their own unique and sometimes elaborate solutions. Some cultures turned to salt-drying methods while some chose to sun dry it. Some were looking to ferment the fish and some chose to smoke the fish in order to preserve its longevity.

In India, we’ll find fermented, dried and smoked fish in different parts of the country, from Kashmir’s Pharre or Fae’rie, to Kerala’s Unnakkameen, from Manipur’s Ngari to Maharashtra’s Sukki Macchi, it can be found everywhere since it is loved and celebrated by many in this country. From the coastal regions to the mountainous terrains, wherever there is water, there will be fish. And if there’s fish, there has to be dried fish to go along with it. Many might argue the existence of dried fish in current times when refrigeration is available, but the ingredient has become so intertwined within the annals of our culture and with our taste buds that it is quite impossible to imagine a world without it. The smell of dried fish is definitely not for the faint-hearted but once you look past it, it opens up a new door to flavours you’ve never experienced before.

For thousands of years dried fish has flavoured our dishes and, in some cases, elevated it to a whole new level. In Bengal shutki or shuko maach would be paired with regular everyday vegetables that would improve the umami and taste of the dish and prompt you to go for seconds. In Maharashtra, dried fish or Bombil would be used in pickles, vadas and also household curries. The Konkani and Goan communities would use rava or rice flour to coat dried fish for their distinct, signature dishes. In Andhra Pradesh, endu chepala vankaya (dry fish brinjal curry) is a regional delicacy and is prepared for festive occcassions. There are various other ways dried fish is prepared around the country, one being, dried fish reheated in water, mashed up with onions, chillies and garlic would make for a lip-smacking side dish during lunch. 

It is ironic that an ingredient that rose out of hardship, celebrated for its versatility is now an undoubted delicacy or specialty, worth seeking out. Dried fish has sustained humankind in more ways than one and now, the fishermen who have the knowledge passed down over generations on how to store their harvest stand much to gain from this, as nowadays, tons of dried fish is exported to other countries. Additionally, the product remains good for the better half of the year, which adds to its transportability and fortunately for the traders and fishermen, their profitability from being involved in this ancient trade.