Maldive fish is cured tuna fish traditionally produced in Maldives. It is a staple of the Maldivian cuisine, as well as of the Sri Lankan cuisine, and in the past it was one of the main exports from Maldives to Sri Lanka, where it is known as umbalakaḍa (උම්බලකඩ).
The abundant sea harvest of the Indian Ocean around the Atolls of the Maldives yields many pelagic fishes, like skipjack, yellowfin tuna, little tunny (known locally as laṭṭi) and frigate mackerel. All these fishes have been traditionally processed on the Maldive Islands as a main source of food as well as income for Maldivians.
On a good night, given a large shoal of bonito, the fishermen, using simple bamboo poles, catch about 600–1,000 fish in two to three hours, an average of one a minute.
Every fish is gutted, skinned and cut following a traditional pattern. The gills and some of the innards are thrown away. The head and backbone are removed, and the belly piece is separated. Then the fish is divided into four longitudinal pieces called ari. These long pieces can be cut into smaller sections (foti) in case of large yellowfin tunas.
Next these pieces of tuna are processed by means of boiling, smoking and sun-drying until they acquire a wood-like appearance. Being dried in this manner, the fish can be kept indefinitely without refrigeration. This was important in the past, when there was no other way to preserve and store the fish for Maldivians.
Historically, Maldive fish used to be sold in the piece (ari) - a long fillet as hard as a block of wood.
Defective pieces were pounded with a huge mortar and pestle (a standard piece of local kitchen equipment) until it was powdered into fine splinters. The resulting product was traditionally used in Maldivian cuisine to flavour local dishes such as mas huni. The process of making Maldive fish produces a by-product called Rihaakuru. This is made of the stock remnant after the boiling of fish.
Use in Sri Lankan cuisine
Many Sri Lankan dishes, especially vegetable curries, also include Maldive fish, which acts as a thickening, flavouring and protein component. In other dishes it is used in such small quantities that the flavor is undetectable, adding a certain character to the food. Maldive fish is the Sri Lankan answer to the shrimp pastes and fish sauces of South East Asia.
This powdered tuna is packed nowadays in small plastic packets, already pounded or crushed. Maldive fish is used in a number of Sri Lankan dishes, sometimes retaining its strong flavor as the main ingredient, like in Sini Sambal, which keeps indefinitely stored in an airtight jar.
- Xavier Romero-Frias, Eating on the Islands, Himāl Southasian, Vol. 26 no. 2, pages 69-91 ISSN 10129804
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Ward, Artemas (1911). The Grocer's Encyclopedia.