A visit to Sassoon dock fish market (Mumbai) to learn how it’s possible to offer a shrimp curry meal for one euro

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If one distances himself from staying at 5-star hotels, avoids the bustling upmarket nightlife and spends regular days eating at basic thali-restaurants, India is still one of the cheapest countries in the world. India is a haven for people who don’t mind sleeping at a basic hotel and who like travelling on basic public transport. One could travel here for a month on not more than 1000 euro’s and still manage to have a lot of fun. India is and will always be on the must visit list of any hardcore backpacker, and the reason behind this is simple; there is no country in the world with so much to offer at a fraction of the cost. However, travelling in India for little bucks comes with a price: the price of low-cost labor.

The low class population keep the Indian economy alive. In one of my most recent articles I highlighted the various sociodemographic groups on the Indian Subcontinent. The largest part of the population is part of the lower class. The approximately 927 million people, which accounts for 70% of the population, earns no more than 6.500 dollar a year. However, the largest part in this group earns far less. These people keep the Indian economy alive. And these people are the key-reason why one could spend a month in this country on a very tight budget. Most of the waiters, hotel staff, bus drivers, cooks and uber-drivers one will come across during their travels fall into this lower salary-bracket.

Mumbai: more of ‘India’ than Pune. As my residence in Pune is only a 3,5 hour drive away from Mumbai, spending a weekend in the economic heart of India is always on my mind. I’ve been there on numerous occasions and don’t dare to say that I know my way around well in the city. Mumbai is a sprawling city, with heritage buildings, overcrowded markets and fancy restaurants. Furthermore: Mumbai is a very intense city, where ‘poor’ and ‘power’ tend to live side by side, often a stone’s throw away from each other. Mukesh Ambani’s extravagant home, the most expensive residential property in the world, is only a 5 minute drive away from the Haji Ali Dargah, a landmark mosque with dozens of poor beggars lined up before the entrance of this monument. Comparing Mumbai to the relatively calm and peaceful Pune, one could argue that Mumbai is more ‘real’ India.

Basic hotel. During one of my most recent visits to the city, I spent my days sleeping in a more basic hotel. The very good and lavish Trident where we previously stayed was too expensive and our favorite stay in Mumbai – The Abode Hotel at Colaba – was fully booked. We finally found a good pick in the Fort area; a hotel by the name of Residency, a value for money place that has been on our list for a long time. We stayed here during one of our earlier travels, some 12 years ago. It felt good to be back. They’ve definitely maintained the high standards of service and accomendation and I’m pretty sure I will visit again.

Excellent shrimp curry for one euro. Visiting a big city is fun but can be exhausting. Walking in Mumbai is great, but the high humidity in combination with the dirt and pollution creates a recipe that will trigger heavy fatigue. On the second day of our visit, we decided to grab some local food. We ended up in a basic restaurant just around the corner. It served Kerala food and one of the dishes we ordered at the restaurant was an excellent shrimp curry, served with paratha’s and rice. The curry was delicious and the cook hadn’t spared any money on the fish budget while preparing this; the curry was filled with numerous pieces of thick shrimps. And here’s my point; a lunch for 3 people, we paid only a little less than 4 euro’s. The shrimp curry costed us 90 INR, somewhere around one euro.

Same fish curry in the Netherlands would cost between 12 and 18 euro’s . How is it possible to offer such a delicious dish for this ridiculously low price? If we had eaten the same lunch in my country (the Netherlands), we would have paid more than 30 euro’s. I’m sure the shrimp curry would have costed us somewhere between 12 and 18 euros, as fish is very expensive in our country. Being in India for more than two years now, I have developed a better understanding of general pricing. It’s hard for people to fool me with exorbitant prices! However, very often I find myself puzzled about prices in India and this shrimp curry definitely grappled my attention.

Sassoon Dock: home to South Mumbai’s largest fish market. The answer to the question was not far away. In fact, we could get the answer very easily after a beautiful heritage walk further south into Colaba, Mumbai’s most southern part of the city. The walk from the Fort Area to Colaba takes you back into the British era, with Victorian-style buildings in a Paris-like environment. When you enter Colaba, you can visit the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel or take a silly selfie at the famous Gateway of India as your background. You will reach the Sassoon Dock area in about 20 minutes. Built in 1875, this area is one of the oldest docks in Mumbai and home to the largest fish market of south Mumbai. The wholesale market mainly focusses on selling the catch of the day to restaurants and fish vendors.

1500 women working as shrimp peelers in poor conditions. After you’ve entered the area, the first thing you will notice are the hundreds of local girls and women working there as shrimp peelers. I estimate having seen more than 1500 women during my last visit to this area. The working conditions are very poor and dirty; after the fishermen have brought their daily catch to the trading area the only one obstacle between the local people and the actual work is transporting the fish to one of the large halls at the docks. The halls are situated a hundred meters away from the mooring place of the wooden fishing vessels. More than a hundred women were cleaning shrimps at the pier itself. The girls and women work there sitting on the floor with mountains of shrimp carcasses around them. The smell is disgusting, a weird combination of rotten fish and sweat fills most of the halls. Imagine working here, for 10 hours a day earning only 2 or 3 euro’s?

Despite the gritty sight and poor conditions one should definitely visit this place. How many kg’s would these girls and women at the fish market actually clean up on a regular day? It’s hard to come up with an estimation, but looking at their pace I would guess it would be somewhere around ten kg’s. This is one of the reasons why the shrimp curry is so damned cheap!

Walking around in this area is fun. A group of local graffiti artists recently pimped up the area with a bunch of street art which would probably not stand out in New-York, Brooklyn or Los Angeles beach areas. It’s however very pleasant to walk around and the people are often very friendly.

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