Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mathi/Chaala Varuthathu – Fried Sardines from Kerala

Francis and Mammaali……… Heroes of our neighborhood! The faithful wives in our neighborhood used to wait impatiently and desperately for these two young men….they were not those charming princes who came on a white horse yet they were popular among the neighborhood women who used to take a quick sprint from their kitchens at the honking of their bikes……some women used to wait for these men even for a couple of hours at the verandah, so they did not miss them at all .......they got butterflies in their stomach when these two didn’t show up on time……each and every women in the neighborhood wanted to be the first to meet these guys…….

Wondering what made these men so special? Wondering what made these women skip a beat? Fresh catch of seafood they used to bring everyday to our homes!!!! Francis was the guy who used to bring first class categories like Karimeen (Pearl Spots), Neimeen (Seer Fish), Njandu (Crab) etc and Mammali at that point of time, was a new guy in the neighborhood who brought both the exotic varieties as well as the small varieties like Mathi, Ayala (sardines, mackerel) etc and was slowly winning the hearts of women by selling fresh good fish at reasonable prices. Francis always got into a competitive mood whenever Mammali made it to the neighborhood first as he was always worried that the new chap would grab some of his business before his turn and it was fun to watch him trying to chase his competitor, on his bi-cycle with the fish basket tied behind the seat!

The other day I was frying some frozen sardines I got from our recent trip to Chicago and the sizzling sound from the frying pan, somehow gave me a flashing memory of these two men who always found a place in the casual chit-chats between my mother and aunt. From there my memory angel fondly took my hands and walked me through those days when I used to stay with my grandma and waited for the heroines of that neighborhood, Shantha, Leela, Njondi (lady had a limb on her left leg and none knew her name and hence everyone in that community called her Njondi, the one with a limb). I still remember Shantha, a dark plumb woman in her mid 30's, wearing a checkered ‘mundu’ (wrap–around) , green blouse and covering her bust with a ‘thorthu’ (white cotton towel) who would come on mid-mornings with a couple varieties of fish in a big round aluminum vessel lined with some thin black leather sheets and covered with a rugged plastic sack....and sometimes with a bunch of young green mangoes which she plucked from the mango tree in her neighbor’s backyard. After a round of intense bargaining, which typically goes like “ 8 for 5 “ for which my grandma demanded “10 for 5”, Shantha would settle down for a cup glass of tea and some leftovers from that day’s breakfast grandma used to offer. Whenever she had time, Shantha used to give a bonus service to grandma by helping her cut and clean the fish ……..and I used to sit there at the doorstep of my grandma’s work area, watching Shantha cutting the guts and gills, scraping of the silver scales from the fish and listening to her stories …….

Ggrandma waited for Shantha and Leela……. My mother and aunt waited for Francis and Mammaali and now wait for the new generation sellers…….who am I waiting for??? None comes to my door-step selling fresh produce or seafood, sit with me and share a story from the leaflets of her life or gossip about the grocery store man in the market who winked at her…..I haven’t even seen fresh fish, caught right from the sea in the last couple of years……instead I wait here looking at the frozen fish thawing in a plastic bowl!!

Mathi/Chaala/Sardines is a popular fish in Kerala and till a decade back, I could easily say that this is a poor man’s fish as it used to be available at a very reasonable price. I don’t know the current market rates but am sure it is no longer a poor man’s choice as it is getting pricey. Keralites have a soft spot when it comes to sardines. This is one of those everyday fish cooked in most of the homes for lunch or dinner. Here is a simple recipe for fried sardines aka Mathi/Chaala Varuthathu.

  • 8 nos Mathi/Chaala/Sardines, cut and cleaned
  • 3 tsp chilly powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ¼- ½ tsp freshly crushed pepper powder
  • ½ tsp fresh ginger paste
  • ½ tsp fresh garlic paste
  • Salt to taste
  • 2-3 tsp water
  • Oil for shallow frying
  • Make 3-4 slits on the fish; mix chilly powder, turmeric powder, pepper powder, ginger & garlic paste and salt with 2-3 tsp water, to make a thick paste. Marinate the fish evenly on both the sides and let it rest for atleast 30 minutes in room temperature, to let the marinade seep through the slits.
  • Heat oil in a shallow pan and when it is hot, gently place the fish and shallow fry both the sides, in medium heat, until they are done. The cooking time varies depending on how crispy, soft, firm one wants it to be. Overcooking the fish will make it very crisp; those who want it firm but soft and moist may remove the cooked pieces when the oil starts to reduce spluttering.
If Mathi/Chaala/Sardines are fatty, then the fish itself produces more oil while frying as well as a very overpowering smell, which means the fried fish is going to be really tasty.

Now, fried fish is ready and you are all set for clean up, isn’t it? Wait a second! There might be some leftover oil with fried marinade in the pan….do not waste it! Take a handful of cooked rice and mix it with the leftover oil and fried marinade, in the pan and sprinkle some salt on it and blend everything well and relish. I don’t have a name for this but would like to call this creation, “a sinfully tasty leftover princess!”, invented by some great grandmother or a clever maid who had a blessed palate to discover such a dish, before dumping that pan into the kitchen sink!

We used to lovingly tease our mother calling her, “Mother Mary” as she has this habit of giving the best to her husband and kids and then eating whatever is left, like all those great moms in the world but there is only one dish that could make her a bit selfish or atleast take a couple of spoonfuls before sharing it with us, and that is the rice mixed like this in oil, after frying the fish and now CJJ and yours truly do our little wrestling on the table, to get atleast an equal share :)

Other Kerala Seafood specials from this blog: Enjoy !

Chemmeen eerkiliyil kuthi varuthathu Chemmeen Vada - Kerala Style Prawn Fritters Chemmeen Varattiyathu-Prawn Roast Fish Curry - Central Kerala Style Pepper Fish Fry Meen Pollichathu Mashed Tapioca & Fish Curry Njandu Varutharachathu Njandu/Crab Roast Fish Molee Prawns Stir Fry

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  1. Dear Shn,
    Again I am speechless reading you.Even i share a similar past..nostalgic memories there !! I would like to replace francis with Antony and Mammali with Abdulla.What a coincidence!! I think many may have more to say.Most of the days i recollect those sweet memories..of bargaining near the kitchen Veranda...the petty egos between Antony and Abdulla..Ha ha and i remember the days where Antony skipped our kitchenside revenging our purchase from Abdulla the otherday.There was one other guy called Dominic,the richman's choice.He was supposed to stop only near richman's kitchen.He doesnt like bargaining too.what he decides is the price.A dictator in business,his physic and gestures completely suited his nature.But he always had the best quality fish.As a child,i loved to just see those fresh beauties inside the basket.We also had some ladies to mention.
    Sardine recipe is similar here too dear.I skip eating them though.My hubby and kid both adore them.
    And dear grandma,you are very much alive here in our thoughts..Your grand daughter make us cry though..this naughty girlie shn..

  2. Your blog never fails in making my tongue drool:-) Fantastic.


  3. vaayil kappalodikaanulla vellam vannu.
    Photos look so yummy and I am sure it tastes yummy as well :-)

  4. Ah! the simple pleasures of everyday life! The rice mixed with the gravy/oil is the most delicious and the fried sardines look delicious as only they can :)

  5. mishy,
    i am speechless. beautiful write-up. ur posts are so dear to me which also takes me on virtual tour to those places and site which i have never visited nor will ever visit. thank you for that :)some how u always make me smile and cry at same time...
    growing up in vegetarian family we never had those two heroes coming to our home but we sure did see them in their bicycle wearing a mundu and cane basket filled with fresh catch. one thing i remember even today is that green horn they had on their cycle handle and every morning at 10 we would hear that pom-pom sound :)
    once again, beautiful write-up and never ever stop blogging:)

  6. 'slurp' as always at the snaps!!;-P

    Perfectly identify with the prefered fish suppliers...Just imagine the kind of personal home delivery for fresh fish happening in the west!!Thinking of how our older generations bargained for the fish I find it quite amusing now..

    My job during most of the visits was to lift that bucket onto their heads esp for Ammachis.. ;-D

    Pinee bingo with frying rice in the remaining oil..we used to do it..and it was a bigtime favourite of mine...I think it even tastes better than fish biriyani sometimes..



  7. shn..... you torture queen!!!!! I've been looking for fresh sardines, can't find any... :( A chicago trip is in order I think... Also, mixing the rice in the remaining fried masala oil, now why haven't I thought of that! I do that with most meat based preparations, but never done it with fried fish! Guess I could do it with pretty much any fish fry, right?

  8. Dear Shn,

    I am one of your latest blog readers .. and am absolutely smitten by your work!! :)) Really lovely work !!! Guess what my latest hobby is - trying to read all your previous blogs so that i am up to date now!! :)) And oh, I tried out your kuttanadan chicken recipe last week and it came out well!! :))- Anjana

  9. Dear Mish,
    adipoli post..!!! vaayichappo naadu ormavannu.....:)
    maththi looks yummy...slurp....!!!

    dey njan kitchen-lekku pokunnu....dinner-nu maththi fry.!!! .. :)
    sad tht we dont get the fresh ones..we got it from our recent trip to Atlanta.

  10. Love your blog Shn.
    What memories your stories brought back and what agony looking at your site and reading the recipes. I want
    that prawn dish so bad...and I want it now. Unfortunately I don't have prawns in the house.
    Do visit my site for my sardine story and other stuff and leave a comment.

  11. Wow.. what wrong did I do to punish me with these pictures :-) and here I am satisfying myself with canned sardines in Olive Oil!

  12. hey Shn,
    Im new to ur blog and i love ur recipes...Yeah, those fish sellers still come to my ammachi's house and its a delight to stnd with my ammachi and watch her bargaining skills... I too make fried rice in the remaining fish fried oil...and its yummylicious....keep posting, cheers!!

  13. i'm so making these, we get tons n ton of fresh sardines here in ghana ... i'm already drooling over these.

  14. Hi Shn,

    Thanks for this post. These fried sardines remind me of ones we make for our Italian Christmas Eve dinner. Of course, instead of Indian spices, we dip ours in eggs and flour and season them with olive oil and herbs. I'll have to try your version for Jeff who loves sardines.

  15. you know what.. i had some fresh mathi curry and fry today :D

  16. dear mishmash...guess i can call u that..dont know ur name..
    just saw ur blog 2 days back for the first time..saw ur blog link from another friend cum co-bloggers favorite blogs list..have read most of the post religiously..must say u write pretty well and needless to say the pics are amazing!!
    keep up the good work..awaiting the next post!!
    - Divya

  17. GOsh!U are really torturing alll of ur readers including of favo favo fish and only in this form (fried)...havent had this dish for almost 2 yrs....we donnt get sardines over here..even if we find some here..i would hestitatea bit to fry them in my two bedroom apartment will stink the whole place ...


  18. Hi,
    what would i give to eat fried sardines.....oh lord.u bring back glorious, delicious longings
    regards rema

  19. Sigh you can sure get poeple go back to those good old days...mathi is one of my favs!!

  20. tht fish fry looks yumm, tho i generaly hate mathi, ur pic is making my mouth water.... ur desert posts are soo amazing .... now my major hobby apart from cleaning is cooking... :)

  21. Your blog took me straight back to my childhood.Ah the pleasure of seeing the cycle wallahs with their fresh catch!And the joy of eating the oily fishy rice in the end from the pan, we used to fight over it as kids!!To make you drool,I get fresh sardines here in Melbourne so with your beautiful write up and the fresh fried sardines I am having a nostalgia trip -- priceless.Thanks.

  22. Hi mishmash,
    I came across ur blog when a friend of mine fwd your desserts link to me. They look delicious. you have a yummy blog... I have something for you in my blog...

  23. Nostalgic Memories !!
    Awesome write up Shn..Loved reading it to bits!! :))

  24. Ann, you re so right about their petty egos and the small pinakkams when ladies go for a different seller :) we had such instances in our neighbourhood too.....nice to know that I stirred up your childhood memories......thanks for sharing those stories here :)

    Anon, thank you, Kajan :)

    Bindhu, mathi varuthathinu taste ellathe erikko? :)) Warm welcome here:)

    Indisungod, I am really surprised to find that many do enjoy this leftover..:)

    Sia, do I make you cry??? it all happy thoughts I write down here? the cane basket and the green horn seems to be their signature thing :) your messages always cheer me up and boosts up my ego too :P

    Mathew, LOL :)) How could I forget those ammachis who would be saying, " mone...dhe...onnu kai thannu sahayiche..." alle ?:)) I am really surprised that you all agreeing with me on this meen rice part as I once had an incident when i went to a friend's house and asked for the same but her orthodox grandma somehow couldnt digest the idea :D from then onwards I ve been very cautious controlling the foodie part whenever I am at someone else's house :)

    Sig, LOL....both of us laughed reading your salutation :))) I am just showing off with the chicago loot :)) yeah, you can mix rice with any fish fry, though sardines and prawns gave a divine taste :)

    Anjana, so you re up to date by now? :D thanks for the feedback on the recipe and glad to know that you re enjoying your stay on my lil space here :)

    Divya, I am happy atleast I could get a pack of frozen ones as in our indian grocery store here, we dont get that either.....hope u had a great dinner that day :)

    Geeta, I will sure visit your blog, didnt get time as last week I have been a bit busy....thanks for the compliments :)

    Seema, :) I have never tried the canned does it taste..? Is it too oily??

    Ancy, yes, I remember you from your last comment here.....:) glad to know that you still have an ammachi to go back to......enjoy the times with her and thank you for all the nice words :)

    kate, tons of fresh sardines??? Girl, I should think of relocating i guess :))

    Susan, I ve heard of the Italian love for sardines and anchovies.....but never knew that it was part of X'mas eve diner.....btw, do reduce the amount of chilly powder when you try for jeff :) If chilly powder is too hot for him, try my pepper fry recipe...that also taste great on sardines :)

    Pravs, hmm...some people get lucky :) kothippikkalle...pls :))

    Divz, thanks for dropping have some mouthwatering recipes too.....must say, got me drooling at some dishes :) Thanks a lot for the generous appreciation :)

    Rashmi, mine is a small apartment too.....I keep all the window open while is a nuisance to the neighbours but sometimes we have no option but satisfy our cravings....:) and for the rest of the day I keep the candles much for a piece of fried sardine!!!! :))

    Rema, sorry if I am torturing you all the mere mention of sardines....they re irresistible, arent they? :)

    rachel, hmm...thats a great compliment I can get , thank you :)

    Vidya, thank you re a cleaning freak too, eh ?:)

    Poornima, thats a great news about will sure be considering that place when we move from here :D you had a nostalgic tasty treat with those fresh ones, right :)

    Usha, thanks a lot :)

    Swati, thank you dear :)

  25. Oooh how do you write like this Shn? Am myself floating in those memory lanes...can almost hear the blaring airhorns of our meenkaran...and amma asking me to run and stop him before he leaves - he was one in demand guy :)


  26. Oh man! That part about mixing rice in left over oil & fried marinade brought such nostalgic memories! You are right, ist one of the tastiest things in the world! :)

  27. Shn,
    Mathi varutha bakki velichennayil kuzhacha choru enthu rasam alle, am still enjoying it!! F eats sardines lot, now we buy for her.. :)

  28. Officially 'signed-on' so I can drop a note.
    I've been a silent reader for a while, but I love your write up so much, I wanted to drop a note.

    I'm from coastal Tamilnadu, catholic and we have very very very similar traditions, habits and foods as yourself!

    Toddy shop!! ha ha har!! (my father alcoholic seafarer!! loved the place!)
    Rice mixed in fish-fried oil - everyday scene.. almost..

    Maybe the article that made me want to sign-on/drop a note is, how we share the "how I miss home during those special ocassions!"

  29. where did you get frozen sardines from in chicago? I am looking all over the place

  30. anon, i got it from two stores at Niles, Chicago- P& P Sons@Golf Road & Milwaukee avenue I guess, and Kairali is also in the Milwaukee Avenue.

  31. Shn, wish me luck! Trying this with mathi..first time wt mathi! Loved working wt safe fishes like pomfret or baby shark..:D Hey I do the same wt leftover omellete oil..yum naa..wd use this oil for sure..tks a ton lady!! :D HUGS

  32. Vow! your blog is the best on net for keralite recipes, well done, i loved it and will visit your pages on a daily basis....
    thanks a million....

  33. Oh i am Kerala and living in Phuket for 7 year i occasionaly catch the small sardine with bate,but its taste not like Kerala Cochin Chaala.
    I miss too much the Chaala Varuthahu and Chaala paal Curry.
    Tour Phuket Jo

  34. Dear Shn,
    Thank you for this lovely recipe :) I miss my ammachy's and amma's food. Being pregnant doesn not help, lol. So, thank you for the nostalgia as well.

  35. Hi Shn,
    I am pregnant with my second one (just 8 weeks)and I have cravings for things that I can never get (like the hot parotta and mutton chaps from Azad hotel of my hometown...I am here in NJ). I feel confort going through your blog and seeing all those lovely pictures. Yesterday I saw this Mathi fry recipe and I wanted Mathi that moment(I never touch it when I go to India..cravings are stranger than fiction). My husband left office early to buy this and we had such a great treat yesterday night. The rice mix with leftover oil was toooooo good. Now I want the kappa dish and also the zucchini thoran. Will make it soon.
    I just love your blogs and the pictures are amazing. You are too good with photos and presentation and obviously a great cook. I feel so lucky to have found out your superb blog post.


  36. swapna, that was nice to read from u...glad to know i could be of some help to u at this glad that atleast u have access to such things....all the best...take care of urself and the lil wonder inside :)

  37. Oh i really missing healthy chala varuthathu and chala pal curry.Since i left Cochin 8 years,now i am in phuket.Here have some sardine,i cathc while i go for game fishing but in our place cochin its calls Thengan challa,because we eat only oily sardine,but here like just skinny challa and no taste.

  38. I make the sardines similarly, +/- few ingredients.. my husband loves it and I find de-boning of the sardines very painful. Very tasty though.. :)

  39. Nice. Thanks for the recipe. We are looking this type of recipes......


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