In Kerala, it seems the day begins with the sound of the fishmonger's horn going "pong pong" and housewives' calls of "Enna meena?" (what fish?). The malayali's diet comprises mainly of fish and rice, which explains the many fishmongers roaming the streets on bicycles or bikes (followed by all the cats in the area) with loads of fresh sea food that range from expensive seer fish and prawns to the common man's sardines or mathi. After making their purchase, the women settle down to clean the fish in their backyards, and then proceed to the kitchens to make a fiery red fish curry or spicy fish fry.
At home, I never used to eat mathi fry. Perhaps I thought it did not taste good because it was the cheapest fish available (and continues to be so). My mother's assurances of its great taste, and my dad's narration of its health benefits did nothing to change what I now consider my rather pigheaded attitude towards mathi. Once I started hostel life during my college years, I realized that my only hope of non vegetarian food would be the occasional mathi fry. So I sadly put aside my pride (and encouraged by the fact that nobody in my family was watching), I ate my first mathi fry. And I must say, it was love at first bite.
So here is the recipe of mathi varathatu, in true Kerala style.
500 grams sardines/mathi
3-4 tablespoons red chili powder (or according to your tolerance level)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon pepper corns
1 teaspoon each of chopped ginger and garlic
Salt to taste
A sprig of curry leaves
Coconut oil, to shallow fry
Wash the sardines well. To clean, remove the scales by moving your knife from tail to head of the fish repeately. Cut off the fins and tail and make a slit along the side of the fish. Remove the gills and guts. If you wish to, you could cut off the head as well. Wash repeatedly in salted water, changing the water after each wash.
Make 3-4 shallow slits on both sides of the fish.
Grind together all the remaining ingredients except oil to a smooth paste. Apply all over the fish, and let it rest for half an hour in the refrigerator.
Heat oil in a wok or frying pan over a medium flame. Place the fish in the hot oil without overcrowding the pan. After one side is done, flip over the fish and fry the other side. I like my fish to be almost crisp, whereas my dad likes it to be just cooked. Your frying time depends on how you want the fish to be.
Once done, remove from oil and drain excess oil on an absorbent paper. Enjoy your mathi varathathu with kuthari choru or brown rice.
You can fry any kind of fish using the above recipe. The small fish such as sardines and mackerels can be fried whole, while the fleshier fish such as seer fish need to cut into small pieces. Below is a pic of fried pearl spot, you can almost make out the shallow slits made into the flesh so that the mariande is absorbed well into the fish.
A few years of my experience with mathi taught me that the fish (all fish, not just sardines) tastes best when fresh. You know fish is fresh when the gills are reddish, the flesh is firm and the eyes are clear. Also the bigger mathi taste a lot better than the tiny ones, because bigger mathi have more oil in them. So you need to look for this kind of mathi when you buy fish from your fishmonger.
Bye for now!