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Mathi Mulakittathu – Spicy Sardine Curry

Mathi Mulakittathu is a  traditional  Kerala  fish curry, made  with  sardines.   This   red  curry is  indeed  spicy  and  not  for the  faint  of  heart.   If you are  not a  fan  of  sardine  make  it  with other  small  fatty fish.   Since  this curry  is  hot and tangy it is  usually served  with a  neutral   starch – like plain  rice  or boiled  tapioca.  I have  friend  who would  he  happy to  have  it  with appam or puttu (steam rice  cakes) or dosa as  well 🙂 .

Mathi Mulakittathu or spicy sardine curry

Sardines –   you either  love  them  or  hate  them.  More  over  half  the  world   doesn’t  know  about  this  fish or   knows  it  only as  fish bai .  But  if  you are  from  a  coastal   fishing  communities   chances  are  you  have  eaten  fresh  sardines,  and  there is  nothing  like  it.  These  tiny fish are  what  your  brain  needs, what your  bones  need  and  what  your  muscles  need.  Why  oh  why   would  anyone  want  to use it  as  bait  to  lure  the large  fish,  that  are usually contaminated  with mercury, other  heavy metals  and  PCBs ? To show  off the  knife  skills ?

Ah, I  guess I just  answered  my question – It is a  pain to  clean !!!   This is   when I  miss  my  Bangalore  fish monger.  Not  hat   I ever  got   sardines  from him – at  least  I don’t  think  I did. May be  the  lack of  sardine Omega-3 s are affecting my memory!  Perish that  thought,  I just  would LOVE to have  someone  clean  them !

Sardines  were  considered poor man’s  fish –   almost  always  they were  very cheap. Since  they are  fragile  and spoil  easily  usually the   fishermen  would  like  to sell these  as  soon as possible.

Varkkala Fish Catch

This  was  the  catch of  the  day  out off   the   Arabian sea  in  the  Varkala  beach .  I don’t  think that  day’s  catch consisted  of  sardines, but  there  definitely were a lot  of  tiny fish.  We do love  to eat small fish in Kerala, especially if  when  they are  liberally coated  with  spices  and  deep  fried — YUM !!!

Obviously I  am partial  to   small fish. Since these are   too small to  be  filleted, the  curries  are  usually  made with the  whole  fish , bones  and  all.  Which make  the  broth  thick and  filled  with all the  gelatinous  goodness.

Mathi Mulakittathu - Spicy sardine Curry

Traditionally  fish curries are cooked  in  cay pots.  Often  there   will be clay pots  reserved only  for   fish curries.  I prefer  to make  avial in  clay pots as well. Yes , I have  one  for  fish  and  another one  for  vegetables  🙂 .

Shallots  or pearl onions  are  used in this  dish, not  regular  onions.  The  aroma  of  thinly sliced  shallots or  pearl onions  frying  in  coconut oil is  very different  from  that  of  onions, but I have  made  Mathi  Mulakittathu  with  regular  onions as  well.

Frying onions for Spicy sardine Curry

The other day  when I blogged  about  the  Thiruvathira Puzhukku   a  reader  had  asked  about  kappa Puzhukku.    Kappa puzhukku  follows pretty  much the  same  recipe  except  that  it  is  made  with only one  tuber –  tapioca or  cassava. This is  the  fish curry that  you   would  want  to  serve  with  Kappa. Often times  we  do not  make  puzhukku with  spices  for a  spicy recipe  like  this – rather  boil and  lightly  season the   cassava  with  salt  and may be a  sprig  of  curry leaf.

This is  not a  curry  you want  to make   with  canned  sardines. “Fresh, fresh and  fresh”, is the  mantra  of the day.  If  you want  to  use  up canned sardines   try this   canned sardine curry   or  Meen Peera

Mathi Mulakittathu – Spicy Sardine Curry

By Syama
Fiery  fish  curries are a  norm in  the coastal  regions of  India.  The  curry will feature  hot  red  or  green  chilies  and  tamarind or  other  tangy  ingredients and  will usually be  served  with  plain  rice.  This is  one  such  fiery  curry from Kerala  made   with  sardines .
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Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Indian


  • 1 lb Sardines 500 g Cleaned
  • 4 - 5 Shallots
  • 4 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Inch Fresh Ginger
  • 1/4 Tsp Fenugreek Seeds Crushed
  • 2 Tsp Kashmiri Chili Powder / Paprika
  • 1 Pinch Turmeric
  • 3- 4 Green Chilies See Notes
  • 10 Whole Black Pepper See Notes
  • 1 - 2 Kudam Puli / Tamarind See Notes
  • 2 Sprigs Curry leaves - 2 Sprigs
  • 1/2 Tsp Salt To Taste
  • 2 Tbsp Coconut oil


  • Slice the ginger and garlic and lightly crush using a mortar and pestle. Crush the black pepper as well. Set aside.
  • Soak the Kudam Puli or tamarind in warm water and set aside.
  • Slice the shallots thin.
  • Heat oil in a pan. When hot add the shallots , ginger , green chilies and garlic. Fry for about 2 few minutes add the crushed fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Stir fry till the shallots begin to turn golden.
  • Add the Kashmiri chili powder and turmeric along with 1/2 tsp of salt. Pour about 1 tbsp of water into the mix and let the spices cook for a minutes until the moisture evaporates and the oil begins to leave the vegetables.
  • Add the tamarind along with water and about 1 to 1.5 cups of water to make enough liquid to cover the fish pieces. Bring it to a boil over medium heat. Taste and adjust salt .
  • When the water comes to a boil add the fish and gently swirl the pan to coat all the pieces with the spiced liquid.
  • Keep the heat on medium and bring the curry to a boil. Cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes. Open the lid swirl the pan one more time and add a few more curry leaves. Close the lid, cook on low heat for 5 more minutes and turn off the heat.
  • Rest the curry for half an hour before serving. The curry tastes better if served the next day.


  • When using regular chili powder use 1 tsp or less.
  • Kudam Puli is also known as Garcenia Gamboge, Fish tamarind, Malabar Tamrind
  • When Kudam Puli is not available , use regular tamarind about the size
    of marble
  • When tender black pepper (green peppercorns) is available use it . Do not crush these.
  • Leave the green chilies whole , these are special treat for spice lovers and imparts flavor without increasing the heat quotient
  • When Thai chilies or birds eye chilies are available use them - double the number as these are small , but leave them whole as  they are  very  spicy. 
  • Clay pots retain heat more than metal pans. Even after the heat is
    switched off the curry will continue cooking for 5 to 10 minutes.

Important: Nutrition Values are estimates. Actuals vary based on ingredients and serving size.

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Mathi Mulakittathu - Spicy Sardine Curry

Notes:  This  curry tastes  better as  it  matures. Often times  the  fish is  cooked  with  the spice powders  and  tamarind  and  refrigerated overnight.  About  an hour  before  serving, take  out  of  of  the  fridge.  Saute  the  vegetables  and add  to the  curry.  Warm the curry before  serving.


Mathi Mualittathu - Spicy Sardine Curry

Canned sardines are definitely much easier to work with. Ever tried curried canned sardines ?
Canned Sardine Curry

Here is another quick dinner/lunch inspired by flavors of the coast – Curried Salmon With Spinach
Curried Salmon with Spinach

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