The Ayirai Meen is a loach found in the rivers of South India and Sri Lanka. Known in English as the Common Spiny Loach (Lepidocephalichthys thermalis), it is a member of the genus Lepidocephalichthys in the family Cobitidae of true loaches. Common in rivers, wetlands and tanks with sandy substrate, the species seem to be of great culinary and cultural importance to the Tamil people of South India. I did not know that loaches were seen as food. The loaches I knew were reared for the aquarium business. But the Ayirai Meen’s popularity is down to the delectable taste and medicinal properties of its flesh. The best catch comes from the Vaigai River, at the very southern tip of the Indian Peninsula. In a curious practice associated with its preparation, the Common Spiny Loach is kept inside vessels filled with coconut milk or butter milk. It seems that this removes the detritus inside the loaches. Though the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies it as a species of Least Concern, the Ayirai Meen catch has been going down in rivers like the Vaigai. A padi (Tamil unit of measurement equaling 1.25 kg) can fetch as many as Rs. 3,000. Ayirai Meen curry is a pricey dish, famed as much for its superb taste it is for its mineral content (especially the calcium from the fish bones). In 2017, there were news reports speculating about the declaration of the Common Spiny Loach as the state fish of Tamil Nadu. Given below is an article from The Hindu newspaper – ‘All about the ayirai meen’ (by A Shrikumar, dated September 1, 2018), describing the significance of the species:

At 7 am, inside Madurai’s Nelpettai fish market, 75-year-old K Bose sits on a cemented platform with two big aluminium basins in front of him. As he uncovers them, customers eagerly peek in. Inside the water-filled containers, a school of live and active Ayirai fish ( Lepidocephalichthys thermalis, also called common spiny loach) swim restlessly. As the old man carefully ploughs a plastic bowl into the vessel, the jiggly squiggly mass of the worm-like fish lash their tiny fins and gambol around, some hopping out onto the floor, twitching for breath before being caught and let back into the water. “The major catch comes in from the Papanasam dam, apart from irrigation tanks in Cauvery Delta region. However, the ayirai from the Vaigai river and the ponds of the Sivanganga and Ramnad districts are considered the tastiest,” says Bose, who brings around 10 to 12 kilos of loaches every day from the town of Tirupuvanam. “Ever since the Vaigai dried up, there’s been no ayirai fish in our meal,” says M Shenbaga, an expert home-cook. She recalls catching the fish in the Vaigai at Manamadurai in the ’70s, when the river was still flowing. “During summers, the water levels in the river would go down and we used to set up a panai pari (a pot made of clay or bamboo that’s tied upstream, so that the loaches that swim against the current are caught in it) and by the evening, we’d take home a potful of ayirai fish.”

The fast dwindling population and the growing demand has made ayirai a pricey delicacy. “There are lots of specialities to this small fish, including the peculiar flavour and taste. Since, they live in the marshy bed of rivers, ponds and lakes, they are rich in mineral and the taste differs according to the soil type. It’s probably the only fresh-water fish that’s sold in padi (a Tamil unit of measurement) and not kilograms. They can live for days in containers if the water is changed daily,” says Bose. One padi of the fish equals to about 1.25 kilograms and is sold at Rs. 3,000 at the Nelpettai market. S Sumathi of Amma Mess, buys about three kilos every day. The Amma Mess’s ayirai meen kozhambu is a brand in itself, without which Madurai’s food scene is incomplete. “Our restaurant is often visited by celebrities, including politicians and film stars, and they never miss the ayirai curry. It’s a favourite of poet Vairamuthu,” beams Sumathi, who learnt the recipe from her mother-in-law. “Since there’s no need to remove bones, it’s easier to eat for kids and old people, and is also a rich source of calcium.”

The fish lends its unique muddy flavour to the curry and that gives the kick. With a spicy reddish film of oil floating on the top, the curry is thick and is typically eaten for lunch, mixed with boiled white rice. “ Ayirai is always bought alive and is a robust fish that doesn’t die so fast. As part of cleaning before cooking, the fish is let to swim in either coconut milk or butter milk. As the fish thrives in the bottom of water bodies, they tend to have mud sediment in their mouth, which is removed when put in milk,” explains Shenbaga. “Loaches are difficult to culture artificially. So far, there’s been only one instance of success where a fish farmer named Pugazhendi from Vaduvur in Thanjavur district has been able to raise ayirai as an inter-crop in ponds, along with keluthi and catla fish,” says K Karal Marx, Dean, Institute of Post Graduate Studies, Tamil Nadu Fisheries University, Chennai OMR Campus. “Much needs to be researched on reviving the population of ayirai . Given the various unique features of the fish and their strong cultural connection to the State, we have given a proposal to the government from the Fisheries University to make it the State fish of Tamil Nadu.”

The various names for the Common Spiny Loach in South Asia are as follows:

  • Sinhalese: Ehirava
  • Tamil: Ayirai, Asarat, Asaree, Palli Meen
  • Malayalam: Ailori, Kozhutha
  • Kannada: Hunase, Murangi
  • Telugu: Asira
  • Odia: Jubbi Cowri
  • Bengali: Gutum
  • Hindi: Bulu
  • Marathi: Chikani, Mura

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Lepidocephalichthys hasselti, a close relative of the Common Spiny Loach that is found in Southeast Asia. The photograph was taken in Banyumas, Central Java, Indonesia, and uploaded by Wibowo Djatmiko.