Vizag is on the East Coast of India so you’d think that we get the best and most varied of fish and shell fish. Well, we should, but as in many places around the world, unless you go to the fishing docks early in the morning you won’t get the variety or the low prices. The exporters and restaurateurs will beat you, the humble consumer, to it.
So we have to make do with the Gajuwaka fish market. You may have lived in Vizag all your life or you may have lived on the Naval base and still never been to the Gajuwaka Fish market. Gajuwaka is a part of town you must not visit unless you really really really have to. It’s crowded, the traffic is atrocious, rules of the road and social etiquette have never existed here and it’s where the lower middle class come to shop. Cops stand idly (or helplessly) by as traffic from all directions converge around a statue of some Telugu dude pointing his finger out in a mock ‘Hiel Hitler’ maneuver.
Here’s an idea of where to find the fish market.
The fish market lies in between the New Gajuwaka Market Bus stop, so called because it is a street market of vegetable sellers squatting on the road which used to be a bus stop and sometimes occasionally is. The market is down a very narrow lane, half of which is an open drain with the other half occupied by poor people selling their live roosters and chickens. The market is surrounded by fruit and vegetable sellers, people selling spices, straw mats and general provisions.
So if you can squeeze through the lane leading to the market you see a small square leading in to another narrow bottleneck and a second square, the whole market is around 20 metres by 20 metres. Both areas are filled with stalls of corrugated and asbestos roofs, with piles and piles of all sorts of fish. There’s the big sellers and the poor fisherman with literally just a few fish and all the support staff on the periphery who will clean and gut your purchase for Rs.10. It is wet because they have to keep the fish fresh with bucket loads of ice. But there is no fishy smell. Fish only smells bad if it is not fresh. There are some flies around the guts and innards as they are piled up and probably disposed off only at the end of the day. The market is rather dark as very little sun light penetrates in to this narrow square.
Sunday is the day to shop and while you might be squeezing your way through a slow moving line of mashed up bodies, the prize is worth it.If you don’t have a regular stall, you could get ripped off or rather, you won’t have a clue whether you are being ripped off or not. To complicate things, the prices vary from week to week depending on the success of the catch that day. So on one week Seer fish or vanjiram is Rs.800 a kilo and another week it’s Rs. 500. King prawns are Rs.350 one week a kilo and Rs.200 the next.Price also fluctuates if the price of ice increases due to the increased price of refrigeration. The price of diesel also has a huge impact on the cost of transportation of the produce from the port to the market.
The type of fish you get also varies on the local tastes. So people in Andhra Pradesh and those from West Bengal prefer to eat Rohu and Ila while in Kerala one would get more Pomfret. Also being a haven for mud crabs, the king of all crabs, these get visas quicker than any Indian and head off for Singapore and Hong Kong leaving us poor visa-less vizagites to settle for the smaller crabs. I am not a huge fan of Rohu, it has too many bones and being a fresh water fish has a more intense fish smell than fish from the sea. But a Bengali friend of mine has assured me that a large fella, over 3 kgs will not have too many bones and cooked in the traditional bengali style in mustard oil one has to experience. We’ve also seen the decline in the availability of certain fish like Pomfret – my favourite fish. It’s great if you stuff it with a masala of ginger, tumeric, chilli powder and fry the whole fish. Or even a paste of green chillies, yoghurt and coriander, salt and cumin, wrapped in foil and baked.
Your purchase and the type of cut you want, sliced for frying or in chunks for a curry, need to made quick or else you’ll get swept away in the carousel of people circumnavigating the stalls.We are regulars with one stall and usually buy tiger prawns and Seer or Vanjiram slices. If we spot some good looking squid or decent sized crabs, 3 for 1.5 kgs is a good size of crab, usually costs us Rs.300. And the squid sets us back a mere Rs.125 for a kilo. People are sometimes surprised that fish is weighed before it is sliced and cut, as are the prawns who are weighed with their shells and heads still on. So by the time they are stripped of guts, fins and shells they are about half their weight. Notice the limes scattered around the fish, to keep the flies off. The small silvery fish in the foreground of the photography below are called Nethili. To make Nethili, you make a light batter of 1/2 cup cold ice water, 1/2 cup flour, add chilli powder, tumeric, salt and pepper and coat the fish in it. You can add 1/2 cup of beer if you want the batter to really fluff up. Dunk in the Nethili and deep fry for a few seconds. You could also do it without the batter and just coat the fish in flour and the spices.
Despite the dinginess and the fear that you might step on or slip on some fish guts one cannot deny the freshness of the produce. While cleanliness might be a question mark, if the fish is fresh this shouldn’t be too bad. To check if fish is fresh, you’ll know by the smell. It should smell of the sea and not of fish. Check the gills, many sellers will show you the gills as well. They have to be red, not pale. The gills are in a flap at a diagonal below the eye. Next, check the eyes – they should be bright and shinning, not murky or cloudy and bulging out rather than sunken in.
Gajuwaka fish market might not be No.1 on the tourist trail but if you are an intrepid traveller, or just a local resident who loves fresh fish then this place, although an assault on the senses, is a must see