What a karuvadu!

Noor and other traders say, this mandi, with 10 wholesale and 20 retail shops, dates back to 100 years ago owing to its proximity to Buckingham canal and Basin Bridge.
Dry fish shop in Chennai
Dry fish shop in Chennai (Photo | Express)

CHENNAI: Uppu karuvadu and oora vecha soru (salted dry fish and soaked rice) are undeniably the best duo. In summers or simply, while yearning for home food, we return to comforting, soft soru paired with the crunchy, salty nethili. Even the Tamil music gods have spoken. From What a Karvaad, Enga Area, to Uppu Karuvadu — this dried fish dish seamlessly flows into the lyrics of kuththu paatu and hits. These lyrics reflect Tamil cuisine and this dish’s promising sarakku buddy nature and its chemistry-inducing film reminder: one savours karuvadu most when fed from a loved one’s hands.

With sun and salt, fresh fish is transformed into a dry delicacy, promising to enhance any kuzhambu, idli podi, or chutney. In north Chennai or across the coast, mats of fish can be spotted drying, which later end up in wholesale markets. The smell wafts across the footpaths of Moolakothalam, off Wall Tax Road, the largest dry fish market in the city. From 5 am to 10 pm, wicker baskets of karuvadu are full, awaiting customers. From powdery nethili karuvadu to soft vanjaram karuvadu, there are over eight varieties, all promising the taste of the salt and seas from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and other states. 

“Fresh from the sea, fishes like vanjaram and sura are cut into little pieces. Wash it, put molaga, salt and keep it out to dry. Every karuvadu is tasty and has a medicinal purpose,” says Noor Mohammed, a trader at the mandi. At shop number nine, the 70-year-old trader gestures to his basket of fish and lists out benefits: “Sura karuvadu aids lactating mothers, kaccha karuvadu for chikungunya and joint pains, and maasi karuvadu relieves hip pain, and brings strength.” 

Noor and other traders say, this mandi, with 10 wholesale and 20 retail shops, dates back to 100 years ago owing to its proximity to Buckingham canal and Basin Bridge. “Travellers to Kerala and Andhra Pradesh used to buy kilos of karuvadu,” says Noor. Another trader, A Mohan points out that sales are lower during the summer season and fishing bans, and peaks during monsoon. 

As the Aadi masam arrives, customers, new and old, throng markets like Moolakothalam, in search of powdery nethili karuvadu or long ribbon meenu. “Every household makes a traditional meal of ragi koozhu and karuvadu, and offers it to local deities. Our sales are good then,” says Sulochana, a trader at Aminjikarai fish market. 

Weekend meals and special functions also call for karuvadu. At the mandi, comfortable banter informs every interaction and on a lazy Sunday, a hurried female customer asks Mohan, “My mother is coming from our hometown. I want to cook her something special, which fish would you recommend?” He hands her a ribbon meenu and instructs thakkali, vengayam and molaga are her best bet for a good recipe.

Tides and times

“We chase the flocks of birds that/come desiring the fatty, shark meat pieces we spread out to dry,” cites Aparna Karthikeyan in an article in PARI, from the Neythal Thinai in Sangam poetry. Ancient civilisations often turn to preservation methods, from pickling to curing and salting. 

As for dried fish, the preservation method is tailored according to the type of fish, its thickness, and the type of salt used, notes Rakesh Raghunathan, food historian, and MasterChef India Tamil Judge. “If you look at Sangam literature, dry, arid regions would hunt for whatever came their way, salt and sundry it. Karuvadu is one seafood item that is sundried, as a means of preservation and eaten later. During times when meat was not available, they would regenerate it in water and eat it.” 

Drying fish is an art. Marination is key, says Rakesh, and the drying process can take up to a few days, based on how humid and hot it is. “It is important to monitor the moisture level of the fish, if you press it, you’ll know. If you have to keep in mind, over-drying can happen,” he says. 

However, Noor points out that despite the ancient methods, the tides have turned, and younger crowds prefer Western cuisine. “Today’s generation prefers pizza, burgers, and fast food. People seem to no longer favour the karuvadu but back then, eating this meant people’s eyesight would be great till 80.” As for Noor, no meal is complete without this dried fish. “Karuvadu irundhuchu na, saapadu erangum. Jammu-nu irrukum (Without karuvadu, I can’t stomach my food. The taste is elevated by karuvadu),” he signs off.

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