Being in Kerala is a boon. There are so many places you can be one with nature….the deep and dark forests of wayanad, the coconut tree edged pristine sand beaches or the tranquil green tiny islets in the beautiful backwaters….all are just a few hours drive from home. Last month it was to Champakkulam that we headed to, a beautiful homestay which was accessed only by boat till recently. Covid scare had literally driven away tourists from Alappuzha…as we drove we could see houseboats, big and small, lying idle and anchored in a line. This was quite unusual because otherwise December January months are peak tourist seasons here.
Our host warmly welcomed us saying we were some of the first guests to arrive after the long and gruelling Covid lock down. People who eke a living out of tourism had really suffered .The little boatmen who would take guests around were without any source of income, he explained. The cooks in the otherwise bustling kitchen at the property were kept on a shoestring salary… all in all it was a difficult time and if not for their tiny plots of farm lands and some fishing, it would have been a nightmare for them to survive.
The two days we spent there, we were showered with hospitality and care. Being the only guests in the property, we spent time combing through the adjacent paddy fields, did some serious bird watching and through our thoughtfully packed binoculars we saw the bright blue kingfisher catching his fish, the little flameback with its crowned head perched high up on coconut tree trunk. Early mornings and evenings we spent in little boats which wound their way through little waterways, taking in the amazing scenery, the serenity and the depth of the still waters with the crimson sun emerging and setting in the horizon.
No holiday is complete without food and what a feast it was! We were pampered with a variety of local delicacies…fluffy white idiyappams vied with bouncy porous vattayappams, downed with a host of authentic fish, duck and mutton curries. But the stand out was the mathi pattichathu. Just the first spoonful of the tongue tickling wonder was enough to understand that this Pattichathu was like no other I had tried at home. I decided that I needed to get this recipe. Finishing my lunch I found my way to the remote kitchen at the back of the property and coyly put forward my request to the bemusement of the ladies there. “ Ushe…ee madathinu aa cheruva onnu parnju koduthe” (Usha… tell this madam how you made the dish). I thanked my lucky stars that we were the only guests, otherwise where would she get the time to share her recipes.
I waited all this time to get the best naadan mathi to make this dish. The coconut was freshly scraped, the onions peeled and ginger skinned and all the while my excitement grew. The cook had crushed the mix together in her ammikkallu (mortar, pestle), but I don’t have that “luxury “and so had to settle for a quick churn in the blender. The mixing part was the best when the fish, the coconut mix, the coconut oil and curry leaves all come together and then get soaked in a liberal sprinkling of tamarind water. Cooking the fish is just a matter of a few minutes. The all-pervading aroma of the dish fills the kitchen. Mathi Pattichathu – rice combo is one made in heaven and one can polish off a good portion of it in no time. This is one meal that can tip your scales the wrong way, mind you, but then for those who live to eat when has the weighing scale been ever a threat!
Mathi/Sardines : 1/2 kg, cleaned and cut 2 inches long.
For marination : 1/2 tsp chilli pdr, 1/2 tsp turmeric pdr, 1/2 tsp salt.
Coconut scraped : 3/4 th cup.
Shallots : 8-10/1/4 cup chopped.
Kudam puli/ Malabar dried tamarind : 4-5 pcs soaked in water for 15mts and crush and strain to extract liquid.
Ginger : 2 inch pc, chopped.
Garlic : 5-6, chopped.
Green chilli : 2, chopped.
Kashmiri chilli pdr : 2 tsp.
Turmeric pdr : 1/2 tsp.
Pepper crushed or powdered : 1/tsp full.
Salt and coconut oil to taste.
A few sprigs of curry leaves.
- Prepare the ingredients for masala and run for just a turn in the blender. The mixture should be grainy in texture.
- Marinate the fish with 1/2 a tsp each of red chilli pdr, turmeric pdr,salt and keep aside for ten mts.
- A glazed mud pot is ideal to cook the fish. In the pot combine the fish, the ground masala, salt, coconut oil and curry leaves and pat down to a mound in the base of the pot.
- To this add the tamarind water which should be approximately 1/2 cup. Cover with lid and keep on medium flame. In between give the mixture a shake. It is not advisable to use a ladle as the fish is delicate and can crush.
- The fish would be ready in 10-15 minutes. Top up with a spoonful of coconut oil and serve with hot steaming rice.