Take a drive along the Southern coastal belt and, as you journey through Hikkaduwa you are bound to see a curious site; rows and rows of fish laid out to dry. A cottage industry, the prepara- tion of karawala (dry fish) and umbalakada (also known as Maldive fish) are methods of preserving fish. Hikkaduwa is well known for this industry with families having perfected their techniques over time. What’s more you could also purchase some karawala and umbalakada to take home and prepare flavoursome Sri Lankan dishes.
The initial steps of the preparation are similar for both. The fish is first cut and cleaned. In terms of karawala, generous amounts of salt are applied on the cut fish so that it is covered entirely. Then the salted fish are kept in a large container overnight so that the saltiness is absorbed. The next day, mats are spread across the ground and the fish are laid out in rows to dry in the hot sun for about three days. Thereafter the karawala are ready for sale and buyers come from near and far to purchase this salty delicacy.
Umbalakada is prepared in a slightly different way. Once cleaned the fish is boiled in hot water and salt is added to the fish at this stage. The fish are cooked well and then the steaming hot fish are placed on a mesh, and smoked over an oven. The smokiness and the heat, provides flavour as well as removes any moisture from the fish. Thereafter the fish are laid out in the sun to dry for about 12 days. This ensures that umbalakada is completely moist free, thereby giving it the ability to last for a long time.
While karawala is soft in texture, umbalakada is quite hard and is consumed in small quantities. Generally, it is grated and added to pol sambol, katta sambol, various types of badum, types of vadai, stuffed capsicums and curries too. Thus giving these dishes a distinct flavour.
As you head down south, make sure to watch out for karawala and umbalakada!