It was the title of a 2013 Malayalam film that probably sparked this feature. Fahadh Faasil, who is arguably one of the finest actors in India right now, is a writer turned building caretaker in ‘Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla’ that literally translates to ‘The anchovy is not a small fish’. If you know your fish and you’ve sampled anchovies in South India, you will agree that this small fish is big on taste. Nethili in Tamil, Netholi or Kozhuva in Malayalam, anchovies are a delicacy in most parts of Kerala and along Tamil Nadu’s coastline.
If there’s one place you must sample this flavourful fish it’s in toddy shops in Central Kerala around Kochi and Kottayam. These unassuming local hangouts have equally become a hub for foodies and food bloggers. The simplicity of the dishes and the fresh ingredients – this is farm to fork (except no one uses forks or any cutlery here) at its core. Most toddy shop kitchens don’t have a fixed menu and plan their day based on locally sourced ingredients. The nethili is one such ingredient. You can try making this simple dish at home.
(Also Read: 11 Best South Indian Fish Recipes)
Kerala Home-Style Natholi Fry Recipe:
– Anchovy: 500 gm
– Coconut Oil: for shallow fry
– Shallots: 100 gm
– Peppercorn: I teaspoon
– Red Chillies: 4 – 5
– Curry leaves: a few sprigs
– Rock Salt: to taste
1. Clean the anchovy (natholi) with water. Use turmeric water for the last rinse and then pat dry.
2. Grind the shallots, peppercorn, red chillies, rock salt and curry leaves in a blender. The shallots lend a wonderful flavour, try not to substitute it with regular onions.
3. Marinate the anchovy in this mixture for at least 3 hours. This is a key step for the flavours.
4. Shallow fry in a large pan – you could also deep fry if you’re not counting calories.
This dish makes the perfect tea-time snack or even a cocktail snack (you can add a garnish of lemon and thinly sliced onions).
Nethili Avial Recipe:
Recipe Courtesy – Mrs Ann Vanitha Babu
I first heard about this dish from Sangeetha Neeraja a friend of mine with family roots in Nagercoil district in the southern tip of Tamil Nadu. This is one of her mother’s signature dishes (and her recipe). This area is famous for its seafood delicacies and even to this day fishmongers bring fresh fish to your doorstep in most parts here at a time when residents in larger cities like Chennai order their fish online. This unique dish is a clever spin on avial, a delicacy strongly associated with Kerala and an integral part of the traditional Kerala Sadhya or banana leaf meal. This one requires some serious effort:
– Anchovy: about 50 pieces
-Tamarind: size of a small lemon
– Dried red chillies: 3
– Jeera: 1 teaspoon
– Ginger: small piece
– Garlic: 5 pods
– Turmeric powder: 1/2 teaspoon
– Grated coconut: 1 medium cup
– Medium-sized onion: 1 (cut lengthwise)
– Green chillies: 3 (cut lengthwise)
– Oil (Coconut oil): 2 tablespoons
– Salt: to taste
– Curry leaves: a few sprigs
– Asafoetida: a pinch
– Mustard seeds: 1/2 teaspoon
1. Immerse the fish in water. This makes the anchovies easier to clean. Clean the fish – this requires skill and rinse a few times. Drain the water and dry
2. Soak the tamarind in warm water for about 10-15 minutes
3. Grind the jeera, red chillies, ginger, garlic, turmeric powder and grated coconut in a mixer after adding a little water.
4. Temper the mustard seeds in oil then add curry leaves, onion, green chillies and fry on a low flame for about five minutes
5. Add the masala to the pan and add a third of the tamarind water and salt before adding two cups of water. Stir the mixture and check for salt and tanginess. Add extra tamarind water or salt if required.
6. Now add the fish to the pan and a pinch of asafoetida. Allow the fish to cook over a medium flame. Make sure the bottom doesn’t get burnt.
This is a great accompaniment with steamed rice. The tangy tamarind flavour and the creamy coconut textures make this a flavoursome dish.
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About Ashwin RajagopalanI’ve discovered cultures, destinations and felt at home in some of the world’s most remote corners because of the various meals I’ve tried that have been prepared with passion. Sometimes they are traditional recipes and at most times they’ve been audacious reinterpretations by creative chefs. I might not cook often but when I do, I imagine I’m in a cookery show set – matching measuring bowls, et all!