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Fish-curing at the Maldives
H.C.P. Bell - 1882

The fish caught in the seas encircling the atolls of the Maldive archipelago are classed by the natives into two chief kinds.

1. Faru mas - this term includes what the Sinhalese call gal malu, and bears the same litteral meaning, 'rock fish', such as the Sinhala tambuwa, silawa, koppara. But among the Maldivians faru mas would seem to comprehend also the larger kinds, such as 'saw fish' (Divehi: farutoli), 'sword fish (D: hibaru), 'sear fish' (D: toli, Sinhala: tora) and 'sharks' (D: miyaru, S: mora). These fish are of a soft oily nature, unadapted for curing, only edible when fresh, and never salted for the foreign market.

2. The real 'Maldive fish' (D: kalu bili mas, vulgarly komboli or kommala mas, S: umbala kada) of Ceylon and Indian markets are chiefly bonito (S: balaya, Scomber Pelamis, L.) though two or three species are similarly cured, e.g. D: goda (? S: etawalla), D: kanneli (? S: kellawalla), D: ragodi (S: ragoduwa).

The flesh of these fish is tough, dark, and not very palatable, and - especially kellawala and balaya - spoken of by the Sinhalese as giniyam, 'heating'. At one season of the year, a large number of these balaya, or bonitos, are caught off the south-west coast of this island [Ceylon], and from the fishery of the village of Balapitiya ('the hamlet of the balaya') on the sea-board, twenty-three miles north of Point-de-Galle, has derived its name.

The details of the kalu bili mas curing industry - the staple export of the [Maldive] islands - are extremely simple. After the fish are brought on shore a portion is sold whilst fresh, and the remainder treated as follows.

The entrails (D: gohoru, S: boku) and the lower part of the belly (D: badu, S: badawata) are extracted, the head and tail cut off and thrown away, the fish split up and the spine bone removed. The two slices are then usually divided in one of two ways.

(i) If into two pieces (i.e. four pieces in all) they are known generally as himiti mas, each individual piece as gadu, and all four together as mahe or emmas ('one fish').
bonito diagram - hcp bell 1882 - maldives

This plan of cutting the bonito is said to have originated in the island of Himiti, Nilandu atoll, and is followed also by the islanders of Kolumadulu and Haddumati atolls.

(ii) If the two slices are divided into four strips with a transverse cut across the front of the fish, thus:
bonito diagram - hcp bell 1882 - maldives

the pieces have separate names and are valued differently.
'a' - the pieces along the back and belly, called gadu mas, so called because they are supposed to be the best pieces;
'b' - those along the middle of the side, called medu (S: meda) mas, because they are from the centre;
'c' - that between the head and the ends of 'a' and 'b', called kira mas, because these pieces are weighed (D: kiran, S: kiranava, 'to weigh') - not counted - in selling. This practice in Mulaku, Felidu, Ari, Male, and it is said, all atolls further north. But in Huvadu and Fua Mulaku island, and sometimes in Addu atoll, these fish are cut up, as in Fig. III, and called by the name of the respective atoll or island;
bonito diagram - hcp bell 1882 - maldives
'a' - D: gadu
'b' - D: kira or uguru

and in Addu atoll as shown in Fig. IV.
bonito diagram - hcp bell 1882 - maldives
'a' - D: gadu
'b' - D: kira

The march of civilisation has introduced modern weights (cwts. qrs. and lbs.) into the Maldives, but until recently the different pieces of Maldive fish had a relative value to one another.

4 pieces medu mas = 2 gadu mas (of the same fish);
8 gadu mas - 7 pieces himiti mas;
kira mas, as above said, being valued against their weight of gadu mas etc.

When the fish have been divided into the desired number of pieces, these are washed with salt water, then thrown into a cauldron (or chatty) of boiling salt water and allowed to remain for a few minutes only, to prevent the flesh becoming too soft. It is said to be important that the water should be boiling from the first.

On being taken out they are placed on the wattle loft or shelf (D: mehi, S: messa) above the fire. There they are left three or four days till well blackened and dried, after which, if necessary, they are exposed to the sun to be finished.

Thus dried, they are, as is well known, of the appearance and consistency of blocks of wood.

Fish-curing is carried on at the Maldives all year round, but chiefly in the dry season from January to July. The same process obtains throughout the group, and it is worthy of note that it has remained unchanged since Pyrard's day (1602-1607):

'The fish,' says he, 'which is caught in this manner, is called in their language by the general term 'cobolly masse' because they are all black. They cook them in salt water, and then dry them on clayes so thoroughly that when dry they keep for a very long time. It is this commodity they carry on so extensive a traffic, not only amongst themselves, but they even supply the rest of India, where this article is in great request.' (p.138).

And again (p.141): 'The fish which are found on the banks or lagoons of the atolls are called in the Maldive language 'phare masse (D: faru mas), that is to say, 'rock fish',; because phare is a 'bank' or 'shelf of rock', masse is 'fish'.
The other kind which is caught in the high (open) sea is called, as I have already said, 'combolly masse,' that is to say 'black fish'. It is in this that they have so large a trade, and with which they supply all the coasts of the continent. It is cooked in salt water and dried, for it is not otherwise salted; although sometimes they salt some of it, yet it remains always in the brine until wanted. But it is not this that they export or send away. As there is no salt made at the Maldives, that of which they make use comes from the coast of Malabar, and it would not suffice for so large a quantity of fish as is daily caught for the supply of the inhabitants as well as for trade. For, in truth I believe there is no place throughout India, nor elsewhere, where the fishery is richer and more plentiful.'

Two and a half centuries earlier, Ibn Battuta (1344) also wrote of this fishery:

'The food of the natives consists of a fish like the lyroun, which they call koulb al mas. Its flesh is red; it has no grease, but the smell resembles that of mutton. When caught at the fishery, each fish is cut up into four pieces, and then slightly cooked. It is then placed in baskets of coco leaves and suspended in the smoke. It is eaten when perfectly dry. From this country it is exported to India, China, and Yaman. It is called koulb al mas.' (Gray, quoting Voyages d'Ibn Batoutah, Tome IV, 112)

Bell, H. C. P., The Maldive Islands – An Account of The Physical Features, Climate, History, Inhabitants, Productions and Trade, Colombo: Frank Luker, Acting Government Printer 1882, pp.93-95.)



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