In-Depth: A Perfect Catch in Negombo, Sri Lanka

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Novelist Nicholas Hogg visits Negombo in western Sri Lanka, where the only thing the locals love more than crab is cricket

Sunrise over Negombo. A brightening gold sky is silhouetting the hotel behind me and the aroma of spices cooking drifts on the air. As other guests make their way to the breakfast buffet, I’m helping to heave a wooden boat out into the Indian Ocean.

There are six of us putting our shoulders to the catamaran and shunting her, bit by bit, into the surf. She’s a huge, heavy outrigger carved from mango wood and bamboo trunks – one of the many thousands of traditional ketti-maran that cluster along the shores of Negombo’s famous beaches and turquoise-watered lagoon. These remain the vessel of choice for the men who fish here as their families have for centuries, before the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch and British on the island. And although a dead weight on land, when afloat and paddled past the breakers, the breeze fills the square sail above our heads and we’re cutting through the swell, west, at a lick.

I’m on the hunt for tuna, squid, jumbo prawns, lobster and – most of all – the world-renowned Negombo crab. I want to understand and experience a little of the fishing industry that still provides most in this seaside community with a living. Stretched along the north-south road running up the country’s west coast, Negombo is frequently the first stop for any traveller arriving in Sri Lanka – a short dash from Bandaranaike International Airport and a gentler way to get your bearings than the bustling capital Colombo, a 40-minute drive to the south. Lured by the promise of palm trees and luxury, new arrivals (understandably) head straight for a lounger after long journeys, but there’s much more to Negombo than just poolside cocktails and beach views. This town’s ancient cycles of sea and sail produce seafood bounties celebrated for being breathtakingly delicious. If you’re a fan of fresh shellfish cooked in a variety of incredible ways, there’s no better place to touch down.

The livelihoods of the men supplying these ocean treasures still mostly depend on skill, courage and the kind of knowledge that gets passed down the generations. Sammy – my fisherman captain, dapper in a weatherbeaten baseball cap and mirror shades – has been fishing all his life. His father was a fisherman; his grandfather too.

‘All my family,’ he says, angling the rudder with his toes, gripping the worn wood and directing us away from the palm trees and beautiful temple roofs that fringe the shore. ‘Rough sea is good,’ he says, scanning the water. ‘The current picks up the crabs and puts them in the net for you.’

He makes it sound easy. Sail out to sea in the morning, sink the net onto the sandy bottom with some heavy rocks, then haul in the bounty. In a day’s voyage they might drop and raise nets four or fives times, but it hasn’t always been so. Although Negombo didn’t suffer the extent of devastation other coastal towns did in Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the tidal wave did reset the delicate ecosystem, and prawn and crab catches around this area dropped off for several years, forcing many fishermen to sell their boats.

‘Or their gold,’ laughs Sammy, flashing me his thick sovereign rings. ‘Fishermen love gold. This is our money during the monsoon. When a fisherman can wear his gold, times are good. But from April to May, during rainy season, the sea is too big, too dangerous, and I have to give my gold to the bank.’

He explains that the banks swap this crab-gold for hard cash, and the fishing community lives off this pawned money until the catches are big enough to buy back the family jewels. Sammy doesn’t seem overly concerned by this precarious interrelationship though, and I wonder if a fishing life here might be a fairly contented one. ‘It is hard-earned money. Sweat and blood,’ he says. ‘But I feel satisfied when I get home. Fishermen are honest and we care for each other.’

Out here I get a real taste of the sea and a couple of funny, fascinating hours in his company sail by before we turn for home, riding the catamaran back through the surf and up onto the shore. Our trip yields no crabs, but then again, no nets were cast. Sammy’s prize catch today was always me – a traveller paying to experience life out on the boats. And, as he admits: ‘A good day taking tourists out pays as well as hauling nets.’

Later, as the sinking sun starts to turn the water fiery, I get to see real catches being landed. I’m walking on the hot, pale sand of a crescent bay a few miles further north, home to one of the many fishing villages that dot this coast. There are clusters of basic lean-to shacks on the shoreline where children play as the men and women fix nets or lay endless rows of silver sprats out to dry on matting. This is the community spirit Sammy reveres; the fishing ‘family’ he mentioned that cares for each other. At the water’s edge patient hands unpick lobster and small crabs from tangled nets. Crustaceans skitter across fibreglass hulls; the men chat, smoke and meander from boat to boat inspecting each other’s hauls. Now and then I pick out the faint fizzing sound of a returning boat’s outboard.

The biggest welcome is reserved for an elderly fisherman coming to shore in a flimsy canoe. He shouts something, waves, and then digs at the water with a paddle made from a length of bamboo. It’s hard to comprehend how he’s voyaged a 6km round-trip to the community’s fishing grounds, but it turns out he has something worth his efforts. An iridescent pair of pincers reaches from the netting, drawing a crowd with its slow wave. Even the grand old ladies of the fishing village join the circle to study the catch: two restaurant-quality sea crabs, a prize that may well end up on ice and put on a plane to Singapore where this Sri Lankan crustacean is a delicacy. It is a good day. I can tell that from the smiles and the belly laughs. And when each voyage out to sea is a lottery, the joy of a decent reward is heartfelt and shared.

Back in Negombo and in front of the hotel I witness a very different but equally impressive catch. A man diving to the right sprawls in the sand, but holds a cricket ball aloft triumphantly. The thwack of a bat on ball is as commonplace as the sizzling pan of seafood in this crab- and cricket-mad part of the world, and this game looks like it is shaping up to be a cracker. The locals are playing for pride before the light fades, whipping every other ball high into the palm trees in front of the hotel. I watch on, impressed by their passion and talent, and feel honoured when invited to bat for an over or two before I hear my stumps fly from a wicked delivery. Only when the moon replaces the sun over the water do we all pack up and head for home.

In the morning, a walk along the same stretch of sand reveals a coloured arc of nylon curving from the beach back to shore. In the night a small boat has set a net and created a fake lagoon; by midday, men have begun a tug-of-war with the sea. From teenager to pensioner, each straps the net to a clip on a leather belt around his waist, and hauls. Step by step, metre by metre. Hours of sweat and grind in the furnace until the net gets closer to the shore with none of the haulers knowing if it contains a catch of any worth. Cuts of the bounty are divvied up depending on age, and how long each has hauled for. Some men are there from the start, others join in when the net nears the beach, when the squawking gulls swoop and dive at the water.

Then a crowd gathers at what must be a mighty treasure, and I see it too: a brown fin, large, rearing out of the water. Yet the net owner isn’t happy about something. He jumps into a boat and skims across the surf to the thrashing beast, shouting as he does. ‘What it it?’ I ask. ‘A tree.’

The stump is slowly pulled ashore but it has twisted the net, rendering it useless. The kitchen staff watch on disappointed. They had hoped to buy something directly from the shore to serve that night in the restaurant. This is how the chefs in Negombo prefer their ingredients – carried up the beach, dressed, cooked and eaten, all within metres of the sea. Never mind. For the fisherman, the chefs and me, there’s always tomorrow. Or the bustling Lellama market, a ten-minute drive away.

The following day I’m up before dawn to see Negombo’s biggest and busiest fish market for myself. Our car judders through dark streets alongside Negombo’s lagoon, the saltwater inlet that is the heart of the fishing community. This is where fishermen catch the lagoon crab, famed for being more delicate and sweeter than its sea crab cousin, and sell their catches along the road. But to see the spectacle of deep-sea boats returning from thousand-mile voyages in search of tuna and black marlin, we need to get to Lellama before the sun.

And what a sight. Trestle tables are laid out with aquatic silver bullion: skate fish, rows of narrow-barred Spanish mackerel. There are huge fish stacked on wooden pallets and plastic buckets piled high with gleaming shrimp being loaded into trucks packed with ice. In the sodium light of the stalls, prime cuts of tuna – skipjack and yellowfin – glow crimson pink. And for those who can’t fillet their own, a skilled knife-man proffers his glinting blades, dicing, boning, and stripping the fish for a small fee. Amid them, buyers from restaurants and hotels haggle beside housewives shopping for the family meal. As the sun rises above the lagoon I see smaller craft arriving with their catch, trading crab direct to the buyers from the deck of the boat.

On our return to the hotel we take a slow drive around Negombo’s old quarter, taking in the clusters of colonial architecture that dot this township. Beyond the opulent modernist splendour of Jetwing Lagoon and Jetwing Beach, designed by Sri Lanka’s master architect Geoffrey Bawa, Negombo has older pockets of architectural history to explore – from the Dutch-period canal to the back streets where every second building appears to be an ornate and bright Catholic church, earning this town the title ‘Little Rome’.

At a thatch-roofed beach restaurant for lunch, I have a remarkable seared tiger prawn salad starter perfectly complemented by a mango and avocado dressing. The chef shows me an enormous, fresh langoustine, explaining how it was plucked from the waves last night. The sauce is layered with incredible flavours: ginger, garlic, cumin, coconut, turmeric, tamarind and curry leaves, before the langoustine is added to create a curry that I could eat every day for the rest of my life and never get bored. Then, just when I think things can’t get any better, out comes the lagoon crab curry and I’m in seafood heaven. This is exactly what I’ve been searching for. Chunks of delicately sweet and tender white meat fall from the claws; creamed coconut calms the heat of the fresh chilli with wonderful, subtle balance. It’s flavour-crammed, devilishly moreish and irresistible, as my wiped clean bowl testifies. Be sure of this: you could travel the world looking for a crab curry as good as this, and you’d end up back here.

Considering the passion for crustaceans and cricket on this island, it’s perhaps little wonder that these two worlds would combine at some point. And they did when two of Sri Lanka’s sporting heroes – batting partners and World Cup winners Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawarendene – decided to go into business with restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa. Together they opened Ministry of Crab, a seafood restaurant and culinary experience now recognised as one of the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’, located 35km away in the Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo.

Ministry of Crab was conceived to celebrate the quality of Sri Lanka’s seafood and ensure that the best lagoon crabs, like the pair I’d witnessed brought ashore in a canoe a couple of days ago, don’t just end up on a plane to Singapore. And thanks to the fishermen, travellers arriving or departing from Negombo now have the chance to appreciate these treasures in restaurants where only the freshest produce makes it onto your plate. But be warned, that lounger will almost certainly be required afterwards.

As the sun sets on my last night I think about how great it’s been to experience the people and the passions of this resort town, to meet the fisherman, sailors, chefs, and market traders and see the effort that goes into the supply chain from source to table. But this experience brings a moment of anxiety too. No matter where I go, and what I eat, I won’t experience seafood curries this delicious again. But that’s all the more reason to return.

This story originally appeared on The Island Insider, a website of bespoke travel content from Sri Lanka which UNTOLD created for Jetwing Hotels