My aachcho’s jaadi making at Paiyagala



by Jayantha Perera

Until about 50 years ago, a rice-and-curry lunch in Sri Lanka was incomplete without the side relish of jaadi theldala (sauteed cured fish). Some ate white rice with a piece of jaadi before serving other curries onto their plates. Amma (my mother) prepared a special Jaadi dish with tomatoes and large onion rings for Sunday lunch. She got jaadi from Aachcho (my grandmother), who boasted that her jaadi was the best in the Kalutara district. Aachcho produced jaadi at home twice a year. I remember her making Jaadi in 1963. I was then 12 years old and was on holiday at her place.

The Colombo-Matara railway line goes through Paiyagala village, where Acchcho lived. It is about 30 miles south of Colombo. The vast, powdery, and clean beaches with kodol (mangroves) patches to the west and the Dutch canal to the east demarcate its boundaries. In pre-monsoon seasons, February to April and October to December, fishermen engage in seine net fishing. The sea was calm, the sky was blue, and the sun was bright. Seine net fishing is an elaborate exercise performed by about 100 men over three to four hours before noon.

Three or four veteran fishermen rode a large paaruwa (barge or a seiner) to the sea with a huge seine net. They manoeuvred the paaruwa to the deep sea while laying the seine net at intervals. The net hung vertically, with its bottom edge held down by lead weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. After laying the net, the barge took a semi-circular path and returned to the beach. Its landing place is about 100 meters from where it started the journey. In the middle of the seine net is the kudumbiya (purse-elongated net bag) – which traps fish, crabs, and dirt in the sea.

About forty men held on to each end of the net on the beach. As soon as the paaruwa was lodged under kodol trees, the two parties started pulling the net, singing songs with the chorus of ‘hodi helei heleiya.’ Fishermen added their own pieces, sometimes vulgar slogans, and regaled in their short get-together. Anybody who happened to be on the beach could join a team to pull the net. If the kudumbiya was full of fish, several fishermen went on a boat with the second kudumbiya. They removed the first kudumbiya and tied its mouth with a strong rope. Then they attached the second empty kudumbiya to the seine net. They brought the rope attached to the first kudumbiya to the beach and handed it to a group of people to pull.

When not in use, paaruwas were drawn on the beach under kodol trees. Each barge had its docking location known as ‘Paaluwa’ (empty land). It had no boundaries or a land deed. Still, fishermen in the village honoured others’ known beach rights and paaluwas and did not encroach on such land. Aachcho remembered going to the beach with her father as a young girl after the Sinhala-Muslim riots in 1915 to check if the seine net fishing could be started for the season.

Aaccho inherited a paaluwa from her father in front of the Paiyagala North Railway Station. When she became a young widow, she ‘rented’ out her paaluwa to two brothers known as ‘Francis Michael aiyamalo’ (two brothers). They were tall and handsome men. The rumour had it that Aachcho wanted to marry one of them. But her brother objected, saying that they, although rich, were uneducated fishermen and much older than her. They would send a few fish to Aachcho each time they caught fish as a token rent for her paaluwa, where they parked their two paaruwas. I remember someone bringing a basket of fresh fish to Aachcho‘s, saying it was from ‘today’s catch.’

Francis and Michael also sent several large bags of fish twice a year to Aachcho to make jaadi. Aachcho removed six large barani (clay jars) from her kitchen in early April and again in mid-October. Each glazed jar had exquisite blue floral patterns on faded white background. Aachcho’s great-grandfather received ten such large jars from a Dutch ruler of the Western Province as a token of appreciation for his service as an opisara (local officer). The ruler also decorated him by tying a silk handkerchief around his head. Thus, he got the honorific title of ‘patabandige‘ – a gentleman with a silk handkerchief (on his forehead).

The day after my arrival for a long holiday, Aachcho told several women friends to be ready to help her make jaadi. On the day she chose to make jaadi, she sent a message to Francis and Michael asking them to deliver ten large buckets of seawater. The women gathered at Aachcho’s front yard, washed the jars with seawater, and dried them. Each jar had a large mouth and was about four feet tall. Aachcho got a sack of salt from her brother’s grocery shop. She cut open the sack and checked the quality of the salt by tasting a few crystals She then asked a woman to empty the bag into a giant canvas sheet in her compound and check the salt for sand and other impurities, such as dead leaves.

Once the jars were ready and the salt was checked, Aachcho awaited the fish. Francis brought two sacks of fish on a cart and delivered them to the compound. Aachcho checked the fish for their freshness. She then asked the women to clean them; they washed the fish several times in seawater from the buckets and then gutted and cleaned each fish. She piled up the cleaned fish at four places on the canvas and assigned a woman to each heap of fish. About 120 hurullo (sardinella) and 100 paraw (yellow spotted trevally) were on the canvas.

Crows and stray cats started to gather around the compound, and it was my duty to keep them away from the fish. Halfway through the cleaning fish, Francis again came with several plastic jars of seawater, which the women used to rewash the fish. Freshwater was taboo in the yard while making jaadi.

Aachcho checked the speed at which the women cleaned and washed the fish, and once, she asked them to take a tea break. She served them ginger biscuits, black tea, and sugar. After the tea break, two women fetched the goraka (Garcinia cambogia) sack from the kitchen, washed the goraka pieces in saltwater, cut or tore them into small pieces, and flattened them with a wooden hammer.

At the end of preparations, Aachcho served lunch to her companions with brown rice, lentil soup, and jaadi curry. She had kept a small amount of jaadi from the previous season for this special occasion. The women congratulated Aachcho for her excellent jaadi curry and promised to help her produce jaadi of the same quality.

Aaccho lined up the jars and covered their bottoms with salt. I helped her salt two jars. She took a handful of crushed goraka and spread it on top of the salt layer. Then came the zenith of the entire process—placing fish on the goraka layer. The washed fish had already been dried in the sun for an hour on old newspapers, which absorbed moisture from the fish.

Aachcho was worried that two women in her party could spoil her jaadi. In the village, they were known for their howaha (poisonous thoughts), aswaha (toxic sight), or katawaha (evil utterances). Especially with aswaha, jaadi jars would get fungi or maggots and develop strong rancidity within a week. Then, she would have to discard the entire jar of jaadi. Aachcho knew a special prayer she had learned from her mother to invoke the blessing of St. Anthony, the fisherfolk’s patron saint, to prevent jaadi from becoming rancid. Before laying the first batch of fish in each jar, she prayed silently for a few minutes to St Anthony. Then her assistants took over stacking fish in the jars in layers, packing fish and salt/goraka mix alternatively until each jar was about three-fourths full. Aachcho checked each jar and added the leftover salt and goraka.

Aachcho opened a bag, took dry lime leaves, and spread the leaves as the top layer in each jar. She believed lime leaves absorbed excess water and acted as a deterrent against toxic eye and evil tongue. She assigned each jar to a woman to wipe its mouth with a clean rag and then seal it with clean cloth. Aachcho kept the jars where they were for two hours. She then looked for a dark, cool place inside the house to store the jaadi jars for fermentation. I remember she kept the jars in a small, empty room without a window with a small door. Jaadi jars had to stay there for at least two months for fermenting.

After two weeks, Aaachcho opened two jars to check whether the jaadi had started curing well. At the end of the first month of curing, four women returned to take the jars out briefly. They tilted each jar to check whether any excess water had accumulated. If they found water, they drained it and added more goraka and lime leaves.

At the end of the second month, achcho wrote to my mother to send me to her place to watch Jaadi’s final phase. I travelled with my mother to Aaccho’s. She checked each jar with a flashlight for maggots or fungi. If the jaadi were safe, aachcho would reseal each jar with a new clean cloth. The tenth week fell during the Christmas week. I was there with my parents and brothers. Achcho’s assistants returned to check the jars and collect their dues. All pots were opened in the yard, and achcho smelt each jar to ascertain whether the jaadi had cured well. She smiled when the jaadi was shining and dry, shrunk, and had an appealing smell. She used a long wooden spoon to check the jaadi at the bottom of each jar. She removed lemon leaves, took the first layer of jaadi, and handed them over to her assistants. She was generous with her free distribution of jaadi. Anyone who visited Aachcho got a small parcel of jaadi to take home.

After the women left, Aachcho prepared a special lunch for us — rice, lentils, and jaadi fried with green pepper and onion rings. I still remember the wonderful, mouth-watering aroma of the meal. I regret that I never asked Aachcho for the special prayer to St. Anthony that protected jaadi from natural elements and evil eyes, thoughts, and utterances.