This week we extend our seafood tour beyond the UK for the first time and visit Sassoon Docks, Mumbai’s biggest and oldest fish market. Founded in 1875, it still feels from another age, finds Rachel Smith.
Even in April, the midday Mumbai sun pounds down on the scorched, dusty streets like the hottest British summer day. So it’s easy to forget that this heat doesn’t translate into summer’s long days. But when I flag down a rickshaw at 6:15am, it’s still dark, and chilly too.
I pull a shawl tightly round my shoulders as we hurtle through town. Usually the rickshaw would grind to a halt in chaotic, gridlocked traffic – hawkers thrusting blurred photocopies of Anna Karenina through the window, drivers leaning on their horn, adding to the cacophony. But at this time of the morning, all is still quiet.
Until I pull up at the archways of Sassoon Docks: this bustling harbour side enclave clearly runs on a different time zone. Loaded boats have long since arrived, trades have taken place, and filled vans are already whisking fish to wholesalers and restaurant kitchens round the city.
Sassoon Docks is Mumbai’s oldest and biggest fish market, established in 1875. This is a young city, and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that it began morphing into the metropolis we now know. Bombay, as it used to be known, was made up of seven islands, with fishing villages dotting the coastline. In the 1870s, land reclamation projects joined the archipelago into a single landmass, and rural fishing life collided with modern-day India. It was the decade that India’s Stock Exchange was founded, and building began on the world-famous railway station, Victoria Terminus.
Many of the islands’ natural harbours disappeared. But it was during this period of land reclamation that Albert Abdullah David Sassoon – part of an influential Baghdadi Jewish family known as the Rothschilds of the East – bought up a stretch along the southwest coast, which he transformed into the first wet docks in Western India: Sassoon Docks.
Almost a century and a half later, modern Mumbai has changed utterly, sprawling outward and reaching upward, the cranes towering over the city centre piling build on top of build. But somehow, Sassoon Docks remain suspended in time. Signs of industrialisation are still scarce here.
Seven hundred boats use these docks. But as crews only come to shore with a full haul, usually around 60 or so arrive on any given morning. They chug into the harbour with colourful flags flying. The decks are painted bright yellow, turquoise, orange, and the crew have already strung up bombil fish on a simple line onboard to dry out in the sun: they will be sold later as the local delicacy, Bombay Duck.
The catch is sorted, and the prawns, crab and lobsters packed into wicker pots about the size of a dinner plate or bamboo steamer. With one nonchalant movement, a member of the crew chucks the pot vertically up the 12-foot harbour wall where eager hands pluck it out of the air. No need for winches or cranes here.
Beyond the harbour wall, merchants eagerly calibrate their scales, while the nakhwas – the ship owners – yell down to the crew, enquiring about the size of the haul. With each fresh catch, buyers swarm round an auctioneer. There’s the familiar noise of the auctioneer’s patter, money changes hands, and the crowds move on to the next catch.
A long sideless shed runs along the docks. Just concrete posts, with a corrugated iron roof, it’s enough to provide a little shade from the sun, or a little protection from the rains. It’s here that fishermen’s families set up simple stalls each morning. The women tuck their coloured saris underneath them, and perch near the piles of fish, hopeful for a sale. Children sit on their heels and start to pick their way through mounds of prawns, separating the plump pink bodies from the heads and tails. Cranes swoop in on stray fish, squabbling over their breakfast, and old men chew on paan while their fingers work away at broken nets.
“The beauty of Sassoon Docks is that it’s open all year round – almost,” says Viraf Patel, chef of Mumbai’s trendy Café Zoe. The harbour is forced to shut briefly during the monsoon season, but for less time than any other dock in the city. “The best and freshest seafood lands here,” says Viraf, rattling off the varieties, from enormous rawas and kingfish, to smaller red and white snapper and promfret.
Zorawar Karla, managing director of the Massive Restaurants group, also relies on Sassoon Docks for fresh and seasonal fish. “Every day’s catch is first brought in here, and then supplied to the rest of the city,” he says. “A lot of seafood from these docks is also exported because of its freshness and high quality.”
Indeed, a little further back from the docks is a network of godowns, or warehouses. The piles of prawns that the children were picking suddenly seem tiny in comparison with this store of two foot-high mounds, which are as long as the harbour walls are high. The prawns are, quite literally, shovelled into the factories, to be cleaned and picked by lines of workers either perched on small plastic stools or just sat on their heels. The prepared prawns go into iced containers: these are levered into the waiting vans, which have “Highly perishable goods. Do not delay” painted on to their sides. Moments later, the fleet has disappeared, the prawns whisked away.
I head out, past groups of men playing carom and sipping chai, and call into the dock’s office to find out more about how this extraordinary place works. “We absolutely can’t disclose anything,” says a stern, uniformed man. He dismantles several stacks of hardback tomes, frantically leafing through page upon page of biro bureaucracy. His finger rests upon the alleged email of a secretary who he instructs me to contact instead. The secretary will never reply.
“Where do the fishermen get the ice from?” I ask with a smile, a final, light question, after my requests for information on regulations, costs and quantities have been met only with stern refusal. “It is special ice,” he says. “Special ice, from very, very far away.”
As the early morning melts into the searing heat of the day, the vendors already nudging their way into the ever-shortening shadows, I have no doubt that the ice comes from somewhere very, very far away indeed.