12th September 1999
Sadly the tradition of preparing Umbalakada and Jadi in the deep south is fast drying up with villagers fighting a losing battle against the increasing cost of local fish and lack of sales. Shelani de Silva reports
Traditions are dying in Lanka's deep south. The art of making 'Umbalakada' and 'Jadi', once a thriving trade for the Southerners who took pride in preparing and safeguarding this age-old delicacy, is fast disappearing.
Kotegoda, famous for Maldive fish in the good old days, is a spot no one could miss on the coastal drive. The sight of long lines of fish, drying in the sun by the roadside was common even a few years ago, but today one has to 'search' for Umbalakada.
The villagers are in a dilemma. Though the trade has become increasingly unprofitable, due to the high cost of fish and the lack of sales, they are reluctant to give up the tradition which for many has been a livelihood handed down from their ancestors.
The reasons for the decline are two-fold. The government's imports of cheaper Maldive fish from the Maldives have left local fishermen unable to compete. The high cost of local fish, they say, leaves them with little profit.
V. G. Gunasena, well known in Kotegoda, was sorting out three baskets-full of Umbalakada when The Sunday Times visited his home. This lot had been prepared a few months ago, but he has not been able to sell it, he lamented.
Having been in the business for more than 20 years Gunasena is dismayed at the decline in the trade. "Kotegoda is the home of Umbalakda. True, that was a few years back, but we still like to think it is so. On the roadside from Kotegoda to Dikwella there used to be nothing but lines of fish kept for drying, all year around. Whenever we got a good catch of fish, we would make it," he said.
It is hard to imagine the amount of work that goes into making this delicacy. The best and the most popular kind of fish used for Umbalakada is 'Balaya' but a smaller variety is also used. Six kilos of raw fish make one kilo of Umbalakada, but this proportion can vary. It is only when the fish is sold cheap, for about Rs 20 a kilo that they buy it for Maldive fish.
"If it is more than Rs 30, we don't buy because there is no profit, when we take into consideration the amount of labour and time involved. We have to add Goraka when boiling, but now a kilo costs as much as Rs 200. We generally sell a kilo of Maldive fish for Rs 200. We have to keep it at this price even though what is brought from the Maldives is sold for about Rs 175," he said.
The raw fish is cleaned thoroughly, with the head and digestive system being removed. The skin is scraped off carefully so that the fish is not damaged. Huge barrels are used for boiling the fish. Salt is added once the water is boiling and the fish is then put in and cooked for about two hours.
The most difficult part is removing the fish. A special spoon with holes, is used so that the liquid is drained gently. The whole fish is carefully split into four and the bone taken out. The fish is arranged on coconut thatch, and dried to remove any trace of moisture. After three days of drying, a little ash is sprinkled on it to repel insects. It takes at least 14 to 20 days to dry provided the weather stays fine. On rainy days, the fish is smoke-dried.
Surprisingly, crows and dogs rarely attack the drying fish. The fishermen make it a point to give the animals the head and other parts of the fish when cleaning, so they do not bother to eat the drying fish.
"It is a tedious job but we enjoy it. The entire household gets involved. No housework is done then and sometimes we even skip meals. Earlier when there was a demand for Maldive fish, people from all over the island would come here. Sometimes we would get orders and there have been instances when the demand was too much. Sadly today, we find it hard to sell even 50 kilos each time. Not only do we have to prepare it, but we also have to take it to the pola to sell it," Gunasena said.
Fish from the Maldives is low in quality, he says vehemently.
"It is the rotten fish and rejects which are used. A person who knows about Umbalakada will definitely be able to distinguish between the taste of their fish and ours," he said.
Sixty-year-old P. M. Gunasiri from Devundera refuses to give up this trade, despite his family's insistence. They are relatively well off having their own fishing boats.
"My sons want me to give up this trade, saying there is no profit and it only tires me, but I keep telling them that it is this business that helped us to come up in life. Moreover it was handed over to me by my parents, so I will not stop it," he said.
Gunasiri who used to get his family involved, today has to hire people to do the work.
"My sons have their own families and their own business. They too are fisherman, but I think they are fed up with this because there is no profit. I got them involved from an early age and hoped at least one would follow me but I can't force them. But I have decided even if I have to stock the fish at home that I will continue," he says.
In the business for more than 30 years, Gunasiri has no doubt made a name for himself among the 'Malu Mudalis'. He still gets a lorry or two coming for his stock.
"But this is not enough, we can do so much. There are hundreds of villagers who don't have jobs and if the Government can make arrangements to sell our products, it will not only help the economy but also help to keep our traditions alive," he said.
Gunasiri sells a kilo of Maldive fish for Rs 150 and prepares the fish on a daily basis.
"I try to use only 'balaya' since this is tastier than other fish. Whenever I get a good catch, it is used for this. The fish has to be fresh. If we use frozen fish, once it is dried you find white spots," he said.
Locating a fisherman making Jadi was even more difficult. In Dodanduwe, the area famous for Jadi, the trade is disappearing. It has come to a point where the people are making it only for their consumption.
Sevents- year-old K. P. Punchihena is a lone crusader fighting to keep the Jadi tradition alive. Punchihena's family has been involved in this trade for generations.
"People who cannot give up eating Jadi still come to me, so how can I give up this trade?"asks Punchihena with a smile.
In fact his clients are from all over the country including politicians and top businessmen.
"Those who know me will always stop at the shop. I get orders from Lankans living abroad. I know I make the best," he says.
Big fish like Thora and Paraw are preferred but medium sized fish can also be used. The fish, especially the head and stomach are first thoroughly cleaned. The fish is then washed in sea water and neat cuts are made on the body. It is then put into a huge plastic barrel containing a mixture of water, salt and goraka. This has to be kept for at least two weeks before consumption, but the preparation is good for years.
The liquid is also sold separately and can be used for curries. It is supposed to be nutritious and gives a good flavour.
A strong believer in maintaining these livelihoods, Punchihena was outspoken. "We have to continue. I don't look for profit, but we have to keep the traditions," he said.
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