The fresh-water streams, paddy fields, and small rivulets are brimming with tiny freshwater fish that are smaller than anchovies. It is called the Indian Spiny Loach, or the aiyirai meen in Tamil. They are expensive and a monsoon delicacy in South India.
When the monsoon season is in, fishing in the sea is not allowed in most coastal areas, as it is that time of the year when fish breed and fishermen get a vacation break from setting sail and wading off into the deep waters for a big catch. Access to fish meals may therefore be limited, or it may not be the best season for seafood lovers to indulge in them. However, you can enjoy your fish meals throughout the year if you prefer both fresh-water fish and those caught in the sea.
The fresh-water streams, paddy fields, and small rivulets are brimming with tiny freshwater fish that are smaller than anchovies. It is popularly eaten during this season in South India and has a high nutritional value. It is called Indian Spiny Loach or Spotted Loach, which is best for consumption when each of them weighs anywhere above 3 grams. It is a popular fish available during the monsoon season of the year in the paddy-growing states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and parts of Kerala. The squiggly worm-like fish is called ayirai meen in Tamil, koile meen among the Kodavas, and malale meenu in Chikmagalur, Karnataka.
The aiyirai meen thrive on the beds of the rivulets, ponds, paddy fields, and rivers, under the water almost at the ground level of these fresh waterbodies, and are mostly caught and sold alive. The catch from the Vaigai River is regarded as the tastiest; the river is now drying up slowly, and this fish is also popularly sourced from Papanasam Dam and the ponds of the Sivanganga and Ramnad districts. Apart from that, it can be bought from local markets in and around Madurai or stores like Supreme Seafood in Chennai.
While the ponds, dams, and riverbeds are popularly the encatchment areas for ayirai meen in Tamil Nadu, farmers in Karnataka are seen taking big bamboo baskets to set as traps in the paddy fields for a good catch of koile meen amidst the rains during the monsoon, which usually thrive in the muddy waters two months before paddy harvest. It is famous as a paddy field fish, among many others.
This rarely-available and expensive fish is a Tamil Nadu favourite and is difficult to cultivate, irrespective of rising demands. A special method is used to clean these delectable fish, as they are tiny. Ayirai meen kuzambhu, or ayirai fish curry, is a Tamil Nadu favourite that is relished by people across the state along with piping hot steamed rice, especially in Madurai. It is sold only in the monsoon seasons at a high price, anywhere between ₹ 1200-2500 per kilogram.
The cleaning process for this fish is tedious as it is delicate and tiny. In Tamil Nadu, a batch of alive ayirai fish swimming in a big vessel or bucket is traditionally cleaned by adding cow's milk or coconut milk to the water and letting the fish feed on it for about 20 minutes to half-an-hour. This helps clean the mud from their mouths and guts.
Later, add rock salt and keep it covered for 15 more minutes to render the fish lifeless before draining the liquids from the pot. The strained fish is placed in a clay pot or strainer, to which rock salt is added. The fish is then mixed and rubbed abrasively in a circular motion against the walls of the pot or the strainer to descale them and remove the fish. The lot is rinsed with turmeric afterward to complete the cleaning process of the fish.
When the koile meen is brought lifeless in baskets, rock salt is added and abrasively mixed to descale and clean it from the outside. Later, the gut is cleaned by pinching off the dirt and being rinsed three to four times with turmeric to clean it before cooking.
In Madurai, the ayirai meen is prepared in a tangy gravy made of shallots, tomatoes, tamarind, and spices, which is relished with a pile of steamed rice. Many old-time small eateries like Saaratha Mess or Amma Mess in Madurai specialise in Ayirai fish meals during the monsoon season.
On one of his road trips through Tamil Nadu, Chef Thomas Zacharaiah, Founder of The Locavore, described ayirai meen kuzambhu as one of the best things he tasted. In his post on Instagram, he mentioned that "The curry itself is puckeringly sour (not just from the tamarind water but also from the local country tomatoes, which have a lot more acidity to them) and wonderfully balanced with spices, but it's the supremely delicate fish that just melts in your mouth that makes this dish truly special."
Koile meen is used to make a curry in Kodagu and Chikmagalur with shallots, kachampuli (vinegar from Garcinia Gummi-Gutta or Malabar tamarind), and spices, which is served with piping hot akki ottis (rice flatbread), kadamputt (steamed rice balls), or steamed rice during the season.
Apart from curries, this tiny fish is used in a dry preparation as koile meen 65 masala or koile meen fry with pepper, turmeric, and other spices. Aside from its delicate and earthy taste, the Indian Spiny Loach is known for its many nutritional and health benefits. The presence of fatty acids in this fish is known to regulate blood flow and therefore promote an enriched heart.
The protein-packed ayirai is also rich in minerals and vitamin E, which is said to improve cognitive, skin, and overall health. Since these tiny fish are eaten whole with the bones, they are said to be rich in calcium, which promotes bone health. All in all, ayirai or koile meen is packed with nutrition and powered with a boost of well-being, along with a delicate, robust, earthy taste that makes it all the more enjoyable during the monsoon season.