Kottayam is the fish palate of central Travancore. Kottayam dishes out a fine variety of traditional fish-based cuisine like 'fish molly,' 'fish mappas,' 'fish peera,' 'fish chilly,' and much more. Fish are abundant in the Meenachil river and its tributaries and in the expanse of the Vembanad backwaters and the adjoining farmlands of upper Kuttanad. The liking the people here take to the richness and variety of fish resources is unparalleled.
Kottayam residents not just cook fish dishes. They may even take a day off to fish, especially on rainy days. The Meenachil and tributaries which make the Panchayats of Aymanam, Kumarakom, and Thiruvarppu rich in water bodies, also make them the major sources of fish in Kottayam.
A fish harvest during the rains (locally known as 'oottha piduttham') is a common public fishing activity of Kottayam. 'Oottha' are fish that are brought to the plains by the muddy water gushing down from uplands at the start of monsoon. Much of the oottha harvest happens around Thazhatthangadi, Thiruvarppu, Illikkal, and near the Civil Station by the Meenachil river. Nets, both cast and laid, trap a variety of fish locally named 'pullan,' 'vaala,' 'vayamb,' 'paral’ etc. If it rains moderately around the Erattupetta region over two days, there is a high possibility of a good oottha harvest around Thazhatthangadi.
Bucketful of fish
Narayanan Nair often gets a bucketful of small fish in just one casting of the net. Two days after the rains, he takes his wards and friends for fishing. The haul is usually so rich that they get literally fed-up of eating 'fish peera.' The Kottayam natives wait for the rains with their new and repaired nets ready. When the water level of the river rises during rain, the excess water gets into the narrow canals and arms along the sides and this cold water attracts the fishes. They come out in hoards as if released from captivity. It is also their gestation period. Most of the fishes caught will carry eggs. This is also the time for special dishes made of fish-eggs.
The bund erected in the Thazhatthangadi region is a favourite haunt for ootha fishing. Apart from traditional fishermen, even people from other walks of life take a day or two off for fishing. Many others cast nets from the mounds erected by the riverbanks.
People in just a bath towel and a plastic cap and drenched in rain with an assistant holding an umbrella behind is a regular sight here in this season. Much of the fish caught are suitable for 'fish peera.' The fish dishes made with sliced green chillies, small onions and 'kudam puli' (Malabar tamarind) are famously mouth-watering.
If one tastes 'manjakkoori mappas' (a traditional dish with 'manjakkoori’-Asian Sun Catfish) even once, it will remain an unforgettable experience. Joseph Thomas of Virutthikkott is walking along the embankment of the paddy fields of Thollaayiram Chira near Parippu, Kottayam in drizzle, holding a writhing bunch of 'manjakkoori' fishes. These were caught by him and his friends. He is in a hurry as he has to deliver these to a toddy shop as per order. He can tell many stories on these fishing expeditions. These fishes prefer to hide by the stone embankments by the river. This is a minor version of big catfish hunting we see in Animal Planet etc. The fishes retract their proboscises when we reach our hands into the water. That is the time to grab them by their heads. Once out of water, they are strung on coconut fibre and dipped in a tub of water. They are also kept alive inside nets underwater. When the collection grows big, these are sold as required.
These fishes are from Putthan Thodu (New Canal), an artery of the Meenachil River. They get trapped in fish traps too, often in large numbers. Lijo Jose, a friend, made up his mind-these are suitable for 'Manjakkoori Mappas.'
Two of the fishes were chosen, each of about 400gms and were scrubbed clean to bare white. Scrubbing them to bare white is a taxing job. To start with, sliced onions, chillies, ginger and garam masala are fried. Coriander powder and turmeric powder are added with water. In the adjacent hearth, fish is kept on boil with ‘kudam puli’ (Malabar Tamarind), turmeric powder, water and salt. Before mixing the boiled fish with the masala, coconut milk and tamarind water are added. Once the mix is cooked, tomatoes, curry leaves are put along with raw coconut oil and further cooked on low flame. Once ready, rarely do people wait for the dish to cool down. It disappears in a jiffy.
From the riverbank, it is now back to the muddy paths. Tony, armed with some earthworms in a coconut shell is heading to Cheruthoni. Glady, his sister picked up one of the earthworms and cast her fishing line from a strategic point, hooking the earthworm onto her fishing gear with a smile. She is hoping for a catch of a fish locally named ‘Kallada’. Tony also cast his line rowing some distance into the water. These people who set about fishing before noon have only one aim-to catch something to cook for lunch. Needless to say, they got their ‘Kallada’ and Tilapia.
Karimeen of Kumarakom
Pearl spot (karimeen), Kerala's own fish, needs no introduction. For the food lovers, Pearl spot from Kumarakom is the dearest of them all. The Pearl spot fish of Kumarakom have a distinct green glow. The palm sized medium variety is the most sought after. The Kumarakom Pearl Spot baked on fire over banana leaf is a dish that should be tasted at least once in a life time.
Pearl Spot is a black beauty with spots and a green glint. Poets compare the shape of eyes of beautiful damsels to the shape of Pearl Spot fish. The taste of this dish is equally enchanting.
K M James of Muriyaanthara, Kumarakom has a team of seven for fishing for Pearl spot in waters of 10 to 25 feet depth. They go to the backwaters by 7:30 am. Two of them haul the nets, while three of them dive and one controls the boat. The seventh member transfers the catch to Thermocol containers. They have been doing this for the past 30 years.
By the lakeside, a clock tower built by Abraham John of Manayatthara Bungalow in 1930 stands majestically. An inscription at the top of the clock mentions about the Travancore King presenting gifts appreciating the beauty of its construction.
James and his team, leaving the backwaters are walking towards the Kottatthod Canal where Sreenarayana Jayanthi boat is tied up. These were the people who rushed first to the rescue mission during the Kumarakom boat tragedy. Two types of nets are used here for fishing. Neettuvala, with smaller netting of 55mm-60mm opening trap fishes like 'manjakkoori' and 'pullan.' The nets of 80-85mm opening catch pearl spots, milk fish, mullets, vaala etc. The Morasu Nets are cast at 1.5 meters below the surface. They are held by floats on the surface and by wires at the bottom. Those fishes who tend to move close to the surface get caught by these nets. These are tasty fishes and just one catch is all that is needed for a wholesome meal.
James sells the fish to Nateshan's shop at Kannadichal by the boat jetty. The last catch was of 27kg. Since the catch was huge, they had signalled to the shore indicating bigger orders were welcome. In the meantime, Sabu and Raju came with their catch of Pearl Spots weighing about 17 kg. This was the handiwork of their four member team. Depending on the size, these are sold at Rs.400 to Rs.450 per kilogram.
The waterborne vella pullera
Catching pearl spot is as interesting as its taste. Usually a device with white plastic strips tied to a rope is employed. Fish, running scared of the white plastic strips are caught. These white strips, (locally called 'vella') hung like confetti onto a three quarter ring of about 100 'maar' rope (1 maar is a length between the tips of arms when both are stretched fully) forms the major component of the device. Two of the team members wade through the water using bamboo poles for support and haul the device tied to their waist with ropes. They practically walk on the bamboo poles. They balance on these poles and walk making a three quarter round of 'vella.'
Close behind them a team of three will dive and surface with handful of Pearl Spots. These fishes, scared of vella go to the bottom and hide in the lake-bed like ostriches hide in the sand. If the water is clear, it makes the task easier for the divers. They can come up with a fish in each hand. When these fishes hide in the lake-bed, they disturb the soil and the water bubbles up. These bubbles are signs of pearl spots hiding in the lake-bed.