Sound, sight and sardines

kerala toddy shop

India is often described as ‘mysterious’, typically in relation to some spiritual/esoteric/religious aspect. Personally I find some of the more mundane characteristics of life here far more mysterious than anything to do with gurus, sadhus or saints. So I thought I would write an occasional series on the ‘mysteries’ of secular life in India and relate these to food.

Indians generally do not enjoy being by themselves; even if an individual’s natural inclination is towards solitude the societal pressure is to conform to communalism: being alone is seen and experienced by Indians as something undesirable (such an expansion population also limits the possibility of aloneness).

The mobile phone has been a boon to Indians for now one need never experience one minute of solitude: just keep talking …and talk they do … under all noise conditions (and India is a extremely noisy place). Here then is the mystery: despite the Indian ability to hear someone on the other end of a mobile phone, even under industrial strength noise conditions, many people here are oblivious to the sound of an approaching motor vehicle that is mere centimeters away from them and they will step out in front of it. Even if they deign to notice the moving vehicle that I am sitting in, that seems to me like it is about to run them down, they barely flinch. Despite some VERY close encounters with pedestrians I fortunately have never been in a vehicle that has hit someone but I never fail to feel anxious about the possibility, and after the danger has been averted I then seethe with indignation at this seemingly reckless conduct.

I originally thought that this behavior was due to a failure in hearing (hence my opening gambit) but in pondering this conundrum I think I have solved it. After years of observation I have concluded that anything to do with moving vehicles in India is related solely to sight. It works like this: if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist; and the only thing you need to see is what is directly in front of you. So the noise of a taxi barreling down upon you is irrelevant to your safety: if you don’t look at it, it can’t hit you.

This led me to conclude that perhaps the Indian government should run a health campaign to improve its citizens eyesight such that the eyeball is able to move beyond the fixed forward position it habitually adapts when encountering anything to do with road usage. The following recipe is my contribution to that campaign should my suggestion ever be taken up (while this is a ‘tongue in cheek’ piece an alarming number of people die on Indian roads every day).

Sardines are commonly eaten by coastal fisherfolk in India. They sell the larger fish as these bring a better price in the market and keep the less financially lucrative small fry such as sardines for their own consumption. These are packed full of nutrients such as omega oils, which are reportedly beneficial for eyesight. In the traditional Indian Ayuvedic medicine system curry leaves are prescribed to improve eyesight. Given the prolific use of curry leaves in South Indian cookery you would expect that the people of the south would have perfect vision but the incidents of pedestrian dare devilry are just as high as in the north where the curry leaf is not used so prolifically. Never the less I am still going to put forward a recipe with curry leaves as it may be that the it is the combination with sardines will activate the sight improving factor in these. A similar dish, more heavily mined with red chili, can also be found in toddy shops in Kerala: perhaps it helps men to better see their way home after a few rounds of this alcoholic beverage.


Muthi kari (toddy shop sardines): Kuttanad Kerala

Toddy Shop Sardines 

Serves 6-8


½ tsp turmeric

1 kg sardines

10 black peppercorns

2 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp fenugreek seeds

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium sized red onion, finely chopped

2 tsp ginger paste

1-2 red chillies roughly chopped or 1 red capsicum finely diced

2 tbsp garlic paste

1 stalk curry leaves

salt to taste


Clean the sardines and sprinkle with the turmeric and salt, mix and set aside.

Dry roast the peppercorns, coriander and fenugreek seeds and grind to a powder.

Heat the 1 tbsp of oil over a medium high heat and when hot add the curry leaves. When these have changed colour mix in the onion and ginger paste. Cook for two minutes and add the red chilli or red pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent and the chilli softened.

Mix the garlic paste with the spice powder and a little water to make a paste. Add this to the onion mix, salt to taste and cook for two minutes.

Place a large shallow fry pan over a medium high heat with one tbsp of oil. Place a layer of sardines in the pan spread these with some of the onion mix, another layer of sardines and more of the onion mix. Pour over enough water (perhaps with a little white wine or lime/lemon juice mixed in as well) to cover and cook until the sardines are cooked through and the gravy has dried off a bit.

Serve hot with rice or bread.