Choosing the Better Fish to Make Goa’s Sour Spicy Fish Curry

A version of this article was originally published in the; June 18, 2020

Trawl fisheries are ubiquitous along India’s coastline. © Aaron Savio Lobo

I happened to attend the IUCN Species Survival Commission Leaders’ meeting in October last year. This event is held once every four years and is attended by conservation scientists and specialists from around the world. Many of these scientists have made it their lives’ missions to better understand and conserve the species or ecosystem in their specific fields. One responsibility of the members of the Species Survival Commission are the ‘Red List Assessments’, which evaluate the extinction risk of a species  using a range of criteria, based on which they are assigned to various threat categories.

While I bounced around between sessions during this mega-event, hearing mostly dismal tales of various species threatened with extinction, one theme became extremely apparent: humans have a flawed food production system that poses a disproportionate threat to the planet’s ecosystems.

The oceans are our biggest providers of wild food and protein, in the form of seafood. This is one of the reasons most people tend to view the oceans solely as ‘food providers’, with an unending supply of fish. While most of our land is managed for different purposes, and we are quick to notice any form of mismanagement here, events concerning the ocean usually escapes our attention. Most of our ocean spaces are still largely open access resources when it comes to fisheries extraction. As a result, many important ocean habitats are destroyed beyond repair, and many species have declined to precarious numbers or are locally extinct.

This said, fish is an important and often the sole source of protein for millions of poor coastal communities in India and the rest of the world. And today, a large proportion of our seafood is being directed for other purposes, including feeding other industries such as poultry, fish farming and livestock. This not only poses a long-term threat to sustainability but is also a major livelihood and food security threat. There are many solutions being touted to the various crises our oceans face, including setting up marine protected areas, ending destructive fisheries, incentivising good fishing practices, etc. But the fish we choose to eat, and how it is sourced and processed, also has major implications for the environment.

Today is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, so let’s explore this aspect using a delicious Goan fish curry called ambot tik koddi, or sour spicy curry. Traditionally, ambot tik was considered a poor man’s curry. The ‘ambot’ generally comes from the sour solã – kokum shells – while the ‘tik’ comes from chillies and other spices. It lacks coconut, which was considered relatively expensive although typical to most Goan curries. Goans have a few chosen fish that pair well with an ambot tik preparation. These include mori (shark), waghole (ray), sangta (sea catfish), tigur (walking catfish), lepo (tongue sole) and tambde bhalem (burrowing eel gobies). Today, a typical Goan ambot tik is mainly prepared with mori, which is considered to have good meat and to a lesser extent with some other species. And among mori, it’s generally the smaller species, such as the spade-nose shark, which is used.

Sharks are threatened globally because of overfishing and their numbers have seriously declined in most parts of their range. Several species are being driven to extinction because of the demand for their fins, particularly in the East and Southeast Asian markets. In 2016, India was the second-largest shark fishing nation in the world. While targeted shark fisheries do exist in India, most sharks are incidentally captured in fisheries that target other species. For example, the bottom-dwelling shark is captured in non-selective fishing gear such as trawl nets, which actually try to capture small crustaceans like shrimp. Many oceanic species are captured in drift gill nets and long lines that are actually designed for high-value species like tuna and king mackerel.

Sharks are long-lived creatures. They grow slow and sexually mature late. They also tend to give birth to a few pups at a time, as opposed to many other species that can lay thousands of eggs. In a pristine sea with few anthropogenic pressures,  sharks are the top predators and play a vital role in shaping the ecosystem. But they have trouble withstanding sustained fishing pressure. Their populations can take years to recover and in many cases they may never do so, as we’ve seen with species such as the Gangetic shark.

In India, there are five species of shark listed on the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and are protected by law. The practice of shark finning, which involves cutting off the fins and discarding the carcass, has been banned and the export of shark fins was recently prohibited. However all these efforts are unlikely to yield the desired result unless the root cause – vis-à-vis better fisheries management – is addressed. This is because sharks caught either in a net or on hooks are dead in any case. Moreover, aquaculture of sharks has never been successfully managed on a commercial scale. Consuming sharks in the current status quo is definitely not the sustainable way forward. However, these restrictions will only be effective if better fisheries management is enforced.

So let’s take a look at another option for Goa’s ambot tik. The tigur is the Konkani name for the walking catfish (Clarias dussumieri), an eel-like freshwater catfish. Walking catfish are distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent and are also known commercially by their generic Bengali name, magur. The tigur is typically found in freshwater ponds, shallow wetlands and marshes. It can thrive in poorly oxygenated and muddy waters as well, and is known to directly breathe air. During peak summer, as ponds dry up, these fish can be seen surfacing at regular intervals to take in gulps of air. When the water levels drop and only mud remains, tigur are known to bury themselves in the mud and remain dormant until the monsoons arrive. They are even known to “walk” between ponds using their pectoral spines, so the name ‘walking catfish’.

Most old Goan homes have a resident tigur or two introduced into their wells, often along with the occasional freshwater turtle, typically the Indian flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata). Locals believe that these creatures play an important role in keeping their wells clean by scavenging on waste and devouring critters that occasionally fall in, including insects, frogs and even small birds. In addition, having them swim around possibly helps aerate the water and prevent algal blooms.

Tigur are best captured in the summer months, when their ponds are dry or have been drained on purpose. The first monsoon storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning, is supposed to prompt these fish to leave their pond-homes and venture into flooded fields to breed. At this time, locals from many Goan villages set out with torches and cutlasses. The fish swimming in the shallow fields are stunned into position with the light and impaled on the cutlasses. The females, however, are gravid at this time and a sufficient number survive to keep populations resilient.

The Tigur (Clarias dussumieri) is a common sight in Goa’s wetlands. © Aaron Savio Lobo

Although the tigur is widely used in ambot tik, there is often a lot of food chauvinism when it comes to fish-eating. For example, many smaller bony fish such as sardine are looked down on as ‘food for the poor’. When I worked in Liberia, I remember the Atlantic bumper (Chloroscombrus chrysurus) being called ‘Poor Joe’ because it was considered to be the fish of the common man, while the larger Cassava  croakers (Pseudotolithus senegalensis) were eaten by the people with means.

Such chauvinism holds particularly true when it comes to choosing between mori and tigur. Many locals refer to the tigur as ‘dirty’, which sadly has to do with its skin colour – dark brown, mottled to black – and the mucky environments it inhabits. Its reputation as a scavenger also doesn’t do it well. Although there may be some truth to this, the tigur is a formidable predator in the swamps they inhabit.

The tigur is a more sustainable option than the mori for ambot tik. It doesn’t have to deal with the same fishing pressures the sharks do: it’s typically captured with artisanal techniques like hand-nets and baskets. Second, the tigur is a more resilient species and tolerates a diverse range of habitats and weather conditions. They lay thousands of eggs, and if their wetlands are sustained, their populations can easily bounce back even after a heavy harvest. Third, unlike sharks, walking catfish are fairly easy to farm and are common in aquaculture operations in many parts of Southeast Asia. This has the potential to provide communities with sustainable livelihood opportunities as well as boost food security.

To prepare a good ambot tik, it’s best to have fresh ingredients. The good part of tigur ambot tik in the monsoons is that everything is fresh, from the fish to the various spices, including the solã and the local mirsang – red chilli that has spent the summer drying under a hot Sun. Today, I will enjoy my spicy tigur ambot tik with some hot par boiled rice, a side of Galmo kismur, a chutney of small dry shrimp and coconut.

With a bit of creativity, we can still enjoy our traditional cuisines and sustain biodiversity. This may sometimes involve transcending looks, caste and creed, but it’s definitely worth the effort in the end.