Fish is a stable side dish in Kerala. As a rice consuming state of India, fish makes a perfect entremet in everyday meal in the coastal regions of India. Whether it is a curry or fries, dried and fry again, most people in Kerala just can’t live without fish. I’m not exaggerating; fish is a big part of Malayali Cuisine. Malabar, for example, a part of state of Kerala we are right now, includes fish in everyday meal, except on Friday and limited occasions when red meat and poultry, which are considered to be special, would be prepared at home.
Tons of fish are consumed in Kerala each year. It’s a way of life. Most families who are not pure vegetarian would have fish dishes on regular basis. Every morning, fishmongers drive up to the street, parking in the congesting lanes and honk to get attention of the housewives. Fish like Mathi (sardines) and Aiyla (mackerels) are what demanded. They are cheap and come fresh every day. Right out of the fishmongers’ carts, fish are cleaned, gutted and prepped on the side of the house where the cats wait to eat the fresh leftovers. The relationship between fish cleaning and stray cats scavenging the parts of the fish is cherished. They help the families be rid of any organic waste that would otherwise stinks a lot.
Once the fish of the day, mostly Mathi or Aiyla, are prepped. A simple mix of spices, in this case, are only chili powder, turmeric power and a few curry leaves, are made into a paste, and it is used to smeared all over the fish, then let to rest for a little while, letting the spices penetrate into the fish. An old pan which is used especially to fry fish (many families have that one pan that does nothing else other than frying fish) is placed on the stove with a little oil for shallow fry. The fish are slowly laid to bath in hot oil. The smoke and aroma of spice immediately fume. The oil sizzles, turning orange and smelling wonderfully crisp. The fish slightly vibrate like frigid dancing, releasing natural oil. And while they’re being fried, the housewives turn to other task, other cooking. Fish frying is auto-pilot kind of process. And as if they have some kind of amazing biological timer, they know when the fish is needed to be turned. 3-5 minutes on each side, I noticed. And then the fish are perfectly brown, and the bones become crispy, crunchy bits.
When I was in Thailand, the only sardines we cooked at home came in the cans soaked in tomato sauce. When I first came to India, and my husband, a Malayali, brought Mathi home and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know how to enjoy such the small fish with so many bones in them. He helped me cook these fish on the first day, and I learned how amazing fried fresh sardines could be. We usually served fried Mathi with rice and vegetable stews. A humble dish with out of this world flavor.
Have I tempted you yet? Have I? If it’s a yes, here’s the recipe…
Kerala Style Fried Mathi
Ingredients: (4 Servings)
500 gm Fresh sardines- scaled, cleaned, made a few slits of the each side of the fish
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp turmeric power
1 tsp salt
4 curry leaves
3 tbsp vegetable oil
Mix chili powder, turmeric powder and salt in a plate. Roughly tear curry leaves in it. Add a little water and stir to make a paste. Use the paste to apply on the fish and let it marinate for 5-10 minutes.
Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, gradually add fish and let them fry for about 3-5 minutes on each side. The fish should turn brown and crispy on the outside. Remove from the oil and serve.
When we cook fried Mathi, we usually serve them with “boiled rice” which is a type of rice used in Kerala. The grain is big and fat, and it’s quite difficult to cook. You would need to cook it for more than one hour to get it nice and soft. In Kerala, people cook it on wood-fire stove because it needs a lot of time to cook.