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Monday, 2 March 2015

Fish Market in Mangalore

My father and I don’t share a lot in common, but what we do share is a love of good food, and a keen eye for a bargain. As a child, I normally accompanied him on his trips to the fishing docks, holding my nose and gripping the back of his shirt, observing as he bargained hard for the best fish, vegetables and meat.

A year ago, I was back in India for a visit with my family, and I felt like I needed to revisit the docks with dad. Dad was reluctant to take me. With my Westernized ways, I was likely to drive up the price of fish. ‘Come on, dad’, I pleaded, and he grumpily agreed. We were up at the crack of dawn, and I precariously balanced myself, side saddle, on his rickety motorbike, and we rode off to the market. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, but the dusty haze was rising – the day promised to be hot. The spicy-sweet smells of cooking and wood fires were in the air and the sounds of the city awakening were loud and strident. There was a time when riding with dad like this was commonplace, but on that day, I clutched at his shirt and the back of the bike, trying not to wince as he recklessly bounced over potholes, all the time trying to balance my notebook and camera.

Fish Market in Mangalore  - Silver Fish



The smell hits you long before you even see the fishing docks, also known as the ‘bunder’. Dad parked his bucket of rusty bolts next to a small shed, and then turned to me and shooed me away. I wasn’t to follow him, go get your pictures and stay out of my way while I bargain, he commanded. ‘We’ll meet back here in an hour.’ I slunk away, losing my battle to stop the bloody, fishy water sloshing on my feet in their skinny sandals. Even though I was wearing a kurta, a traditional Indian outfit, I still got many curious glances. The camera does that, but I am fluent in Kannada, the local language, so a smile and a cheery ‘good morning’ and a casual wave towards dad – who was still trying to disown me – smoothed out my path through the crowds of bargain fish hunters.

The smell is horrendous, but the key is to stop trying to hold your nose and not smell it. Soon enough, I got used to it, and it was just an extra layer of atmosphere. Even though it was barely six in the morning, the boats had already docked, bearing the night’s catch. The majority of the fish had already been taken through to the auction room, to be transported to the bigger cities, and to supermarkets. The rest of the fish was haphazardly spread around the market, each vendor yelling out prices and holding prize specimens out to tempt the local buyers. I got my share of fish pushed towards me and I kept smiling and waving vaguely towards dad. The smelly puddles won, and I gave up, folding up my jeans as I wandered around the market, snapping pictures of the fish, the people, trying to get as much of the chaos of the market into a photograph.


'Fisherwomen at the Fountain', mixed media by Zena Colaco

Older ladies, more experienced in the way of the docks, shoved me aside when my camera and I got in the way of their prized fish. Some stopped by and interrogated me – why was I here, who were my folks, when did I get back to Mangalore? It was obvious that, even though I grew up in the city, I no longer lived there and therefore details about where I ended up must be obtained (soon to be shared among the rest of the community). I even got a marriage proposal (very good boy, lives in the USA, makes a lot of money, can I send his details to your father? – that poor lady was highly miffed to find that I was married and had a child to boot!) Mangalore, at its heart, is a small town and as soon as the ladies heard who my dad was, they helpfully pointed me in his direction, sure I was lost. My smile came in handy more than once.

I bumped into Dad by the fresh prawns. He pretended not to see me, but I gesticulated wildly that I wanted to buy some prawns, so he nudged me away and squatted down, checking the quality and to start the bargaining process. I wisely kept away, checking out a basket of squid, instead, pretending I’d no idea what he was doing. I saw him also point to some fresh pomfrets (a flat fish), and I had visions of my mom’s spicy pomfret fry for lunch.

Pomfret at Fish Market in Mangalore, India

Prawns at Fish Market in Mangalore, India



By seven AM, the market was already slowing down. Dad found me and indicated that we’d better be on our way. Older men and ladies stopped him as we picked our way back to the bike, asking him what his price was, alternately disappointed that he’d got a better price, or crowing when they got the upper hand. I shook hands with all of them, and told them all stories about my life in Canada, promising to email their daughters and sons about prospects in the country.

Dad swung his bags over the handlebars, and I took my life back into my hands, as I sat behind him. We stopped at a local restaurant for a idli-sambar-dosa (steamed rice cakes, a spicy vegetable stew and a crisp rice pancake) and a cup of strong, fragrant local filter coffee.'Take a photo of this', dad says – there is something about a camera that makes people want to tell you what to take a picture of. I dutifully did.

Prawns at Fish Market in Mangalore, India

Back home, mum was already up, as were my baby niece and my six-year old daughter, who wrinkled her nose as I walked in – ‘what on earth is that smell, mom?’ I grumped at her to mind her own business, as I went to grab a shower. Mom was inspecting the seafood when I got out. She expertly filleted the pomfrets, peeled the prawns and threw the fish heads at our neighborhood cats. Half of the catch was frozen for later use that week, and mom turned to me and asked me what I wanted to do with the prawns, seeing as I was the one who got them. I wanted to make Kerala style prawn fry, and we did.

Mom stood around, explaining everything that I was doing wrong (according to her), while I ruminated that I could be a food writer in Canada, but when it comes to mother, I’d always be doing everything wrong. Still, between the two of us, we managed to get lunch ready. We rarely, if ever, sit down at the table to eat in India, so we each grabbed a plate, filling it with the red rice that is local to Mangalore, and scooping in the prawns,  some leftover dal and some spicy homemade mango pickles. I wandered out to the balcony to eat – the sun was blazing down on my head, but if I craned my neck, I could just about see the Arabian sea in the distance, framed by lush mango and coconut trees gently swaying in the lightly brine-scented sea breeze. There really isn't much more that is magical about life than this.



Fish Market in Mangalore


16 comments :

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for this post!
    I'm visiting Mangalore with my family later this year, and I would like to convince my dad to show me the fish market too. Where is the Mangalore fish market? (Is it in Mangalore city (Kodiyal)? Or at Malpe (I heard there's a fish market there)?) Also, what time do you have to get there by to see the action?
    Again, thanks for the super interesting post, and amazing pictures.
    -Rose

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    1. Hi Rose, glad you enjoyed the post :) The Mangalore fish market is in the 'Bunder' around Car Street, you can also get there via Pandeshwar and State Bank to Bunder Road. Best time to get there is about 6.30 AM, as the boats will start docking about then. Enjoy your visit, and do share your own photos on my FB page. If you are looking for great eats in Mangalore, check out my friend's site - http://www.the3hungrymen.com/

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    2. Thank you very much, Michelle - both for the location and the website. I'll definitely check them out! :)

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  2. Wow this story was amazing- thank you so much for sharing!

    I've been wanting to visit India for a long time and this certainly makes me want to check out the fish market (but I would be completely unable to purchase anything, let alone at a reasonable price).

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this.
    -Kelsey

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    1. Thanks so much Kelsey, so glad you enjoyed the piece... I can always volunteer my dad to bargain for you, lol :)

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  3. Loved this piece. Getting fish for a better price than the neighbours was the ultimate triumph for my Dad . I used to love the wisecracks from fisher women during the bargaining . and today is the feast of urwa mariyamma , the revered deity of fisher folk in Mangalore . this deity is decked up with gold bangude , buthai and maanji fish necklaces

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  4. Shubha, wow, that is such a co-incidence. I have to mention that on my FB page. So glad you liked the post and yes, we had tons of wisecracks from the women as well :)

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  5. This was a lovely read. I got married to a Mangalorean and I absolutely love the place. I have visited the 'Bunder' but only during the day to gorge on fried fish and rice at a rickety place called 'Narayan'. Your post makes me want to go back, and experience the place like you've described. I think I'm going to when I go back for Easter :)

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  6. Oh, Michelle, you brought the whole place so alive for me! Your wonderful writing made me feel like I was there in the market, too. I could almost feel the bottom of my jeans getting wet with fishy water and could smell the 'ripe' briny smells. Your photos are so great. I've always wanted to see India, but now I want to visit a fish market there, too. What a wonderful glimpse into one small aspect of all there is to see in your amazing homeland!

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  7. Michelle I absolutely love this post! Thank you for taking your readers on this lovely journey. It was like I was walking along the market with you, beautiful writing. I look forward to more posts like this! Even though the wanderer in me loves the journey you took me on, I think your story will resonate with many.. I mean does anyones Mother actually approve of how they cook?? And anyone from a small town will chuckle along with the what are you doing? are you married questions.. Again thank you for sharing your home.

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  8. wow, that just makes me want to visit India even more than I already do, thank you

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  9. I like going to Bunder too, bt not too much the smell. It's been long since I visited there. After seeing your pics, feel like going :)

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  10. Loved this post - it all came so very alive! I'm excited to see more of these posts from you :) Also, had to chuckle at your line about how people feel the need to tell you what to take pictures of when you have a camera. So true!

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  11. Great post Michelle! Brought back memories of fish markets for me...BTW I LOVE spicy grilled pomfret! There is a place near my house that does them and they are so delicious. They only do 8 per night so you have to call ahead to book.

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  12. A fine piece of writing. I remember being in Malpe fish market around 20 years back and loved the coastal trip. It reminds me of Malgudi days.

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  13. I recently wrote a small post about my dad, the bargains and fish mongers in our neighborhood. What a coincidence.
    I am following your work on The Kitchn for a long long time and it is only this week that I found your blog. I have spent last hour scrolling through it.Thank for your tales and keeping indian culture, memories and food real here. I can connect with at so many levels.

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