Kottayam: If there is anything more addictive for the people of Kottayam than their mouthwatering fish delicacies, it is the frolicking ways of fishing along the flooded paddy fields and countless streams leading up to the Meenachil River. Every monsoon, villagers perch along the canals and rivulets with large nets to take home the fish brought out by the gushing water.
Just two days of rains and the people in Aymanam, Kumarakom and Thiruvarppu panchayats have enough fish to stuff them for a week. The swimming beauties end up as fish moilee or mappas on the plates of Kottayam. You can never have enough of fish while you are in Kottayam. They come in amazing varieties in these backwaters.
Fishing in the rain has become so much of a local sport that people even bunk work to get wet. They wait with their indigenous fishing nets for the fish that drift from the eastern hills along with the water. The mass fishing, known as ‘ootha pidutham’ in local parlance, is concentrated at Thazhathangadi, Tiruvarppu and Illikkal along the Meenachil River.
They also come in hordes to the stretch near the district civil station. Their nets are as varied as the fish on offer. Freshwater fish such as pullan, vala, vayambu and paral land up in those nets aplenty. They go home to shallow-fry their catch or roast it in a plantain leaf or put it the fiery red curry that has become emblematic of central Kerala.
Narayanan Nair had to cast his net only once. He returned with a bucketful of small fry. He had taken his children and friends along to fish on the second day of rain. They all feasted on meen peera, a soul food that pairs small fish with grated coconut, green chillies and shallots in a sour gravy.
Kottayam residents mend their nets or buy new ones ahead of the monsoon. Once the river is in spate, it swells the adjoining canals and fields and fills them with bountiful fish. Even the fish in the canals are lured out by the fresh water from the hills.
Rainy season in Kerala is breeding time for the fish. Almost all fish that ends up in the fishermen’s nets would be ready to spawn. Monsoon is also the time for tasty dishes made of fish eggs.
There is no better place for netting fish than a bund wall on the river at Thazhathangadi. Professional fishermen are joined by amateurs on this spot after a day of heavy rain in the east.
The techniques vary, from the professionals who cast their nets from a makeshift quay to one-day fishermen drenched to the bone, with a towel wrapped around their waist and a plastic hat on their head.
Kottayam has its share of daredevil catfish hunters. We spotted one of them by a flooded paddy field at Parippu. Joseph Thomas was carrying still-live manjakooris hooked to a thread. He is hurrying to the local toddy shop, where they will transform into addictive mappas.
Manjakoori (yellow catfish) is a radiant beauty. They hide beneath stones and driftwood, yielding only to the skilled fishermen. The hunters have to feel for them with their hands. They grab the fish by its head and put them in a cage in the water until they have enough to sell to a cook.
People living by the Meenachil River has an indigenous method to fish. They make an enclosure with a shutter in the river and lure the fish in with food. Once they see enough fish dropping by, they pull the shutter down. The trapped fish are up for grabs.
Manjakoori, like most catfish, is not an easy job in the kitchen. Though scaleless, the fish has to be thoroughly scrubbed before cooking. The fatty fish is worth it though. Cooked in coconut milk with an assortment of spices, manjakoori is an out-of-the-world experience.
Walking on water
When in Kerala, never miss the karimeen. Variously called banded pearlspot or striped chromide, the palm-sized greenish black fish has become a brand ambassador of Kerala tourism. Nowhere is it more pronounced as in Kumarakom.
K A James and his friends are specialists in karimeen fishing. They steer their boat towards the brackish lake around 7.30 in the morning. The division of labour is clear. Three of them would dive to a depth of up to 25 feet, while two men scare the fish with a festoon of silvery plastic material. The others are in charge of steering the boat and storing the catch.
The highly specialised fishing method requires top skill. They walk on bamboo stilts on the lake bed, with the shining festoon tied to their waist. The unnatural radiance scares the fish, which hides its head in the mud like an ostrich. The stilt-walkers’ companions dive to the lake bed and scoop up the fish one by one. Their skill lies in spotting the cloud of mud created by the fish while sticking its head into the lake bed.
The magnificent seven have been doing this for 30 years. They were among the local residents to fish out the survivors of a boat accident at Kumarakom a few years ago.
They have different types of nets for different fishes. The gang has had a good catch. They have netted 27 kilograms of fish. A kilogram of karimeen fetches Rs 400 to Rs 450, depending on the size of the fish. The medium-sized ones are in great demand, both by tourists and locals.