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An Early Morning at the Fish Market

SRI LANKA | Sunday, 1 November 2015 | Views [903]

Our final adventure in Colombo required a very early morning – I set my alarm for 4:50am, if I recall correctly. We left before dawn, headed towards Negombo, about an hour north of the capital.

Bleary eyed, we arrived at the town’s daily fish market, full of people who’d forgotten about sleep hours before. With the noise, and crowds, and powerfully hot sun, soon we were awake, too.

Because so much of the fishing in North America is done in big, industrial trawlers, it’s difficult to buy fish right off the boat. In Negombo, however, the ocean-to-table chain is visible, and it’s short: the open air market sits just off the beach, a mere hundred metres from the water.

Early in the morning, the fishing boats come in with their day’s catch, a constant throng of birds circling overhead, each hoping to snag breakfast.

First, the smaller motorized boats arrive, and later, the wind-powered catamarans, which were still nodding along the horizon when we walked onto the beach.

To protect themselves from the hot sun, I noticed many of the fishermen had pulled squares of cloth over their heads and tied under their chins, making them look like endearing, old Eastern European grandmothers.

Once the boats were hauled onto the beach, the fish were shaken from nets or pulled off lines, and loaded into buckets.

Finally, they were carried across the sand to the market, all of a stone’s throw away, and sold directly to customers.

Some vendors, many of whom were older women, stood behind tables loaded with a diverse number of fish and prawns, while others squatted on the ground, a small arrangement of one species laid out before them.

Along one side of the market stood a row of men, each behind his own tree trunk butcher block.

They’re the people to visit once you’ve purchased your fish, and want them de-scaled, de-finned, and chopped up for a small fee.

Just outside fish market another one had popped up, this one with fruit, vegetable, and spices for sale.

There were piles of rambutans, cinnamon sticks, and fresh turmeric, as well as bowls of cashews soaking in water. Seth and I each downed an entire king coconut; not realizing until our first sips just how dehydrated the beach had made us.

We returned to the van, and drove 10 minutes to another nearby fish market. This one seemed to be more of a wholesale operation, and was predominantly filled with men. They were far more interested in me and my camera than at the first stop….

During our visit to Negombo I purchased a fish – my very own fish! – and took it back to the Mirage, where Chef Lloyd Opatha taught me how to make fish curry. He’s a popular figure in Sri Lanka, the host of a cooking show and a long-time chef in the hotel industry.

Thus, my last official Passport and Plate meal was a classic curry, made with fish I’d picked out that morning from a beach just north of where I ate it. The coconut broth was subtly spiced and sweet, colourful with chili, curry leaves, and a spoonful of sambal. I ate it in the hotel restaurant, a wall of windows next to made turquoise by a view of the ocean. Of course, there was also a cup of tea on the table, a reminder of my days in Hill Country.

It is difficult to convey just how much I appreciated this opportunity, this once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore Sri Lanka through food. World Nomads could easily just sell insurance, re-tweeting cool travel stories and sharing remarkable pictures on Instagram. But they don’t. They’ve made their company about so much more, by creating programs like Passport and Plate and letting people like me experience a life outside the one I already know.

Thank you to Alicia, Pari, Jesse, and the whole team at World Nomads for working so hard to make our trip a success. Thank you to Asanga for guiding and translating so many conversations, and to Deepal, our driver, for safely and smoothly getting us everywhere!

Finally, thanks to videographer Seth Coleman, who followed me around with a camera the whole time, and put up with my often inarticulate, heat-exhausted sound bites. I mean, there are only so many times you need to hear someone say, “I’m really sweaty!” on camera. He put together these three brilliant short videos about my trip, each of which I am proud to share here, here and here.

So what should you consider your one takeaway from all of these posts? VISIT SRI LANKA. It’s that simple. You won’t regret it.

Thanks so much for reading,



Tags: colombo, fish, fish market, fishing, market, negombo, sri lanka

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