Kerala brings to mind a tropical paradise of waving coconut trees, lush greenery, and scenic backwaters. However, when it comes to food, you would be surprised to know that the cuisine changes every 10 kilometres, especially because it is community-based; and one of them even has a link to the UAE.
One such tradition is the Moplah or Mappila cuisine of north Kerala, which belongs to the Muslim community of the state. From roasted duck or tharavu roast laden in onions, curry leaves, spices and coconut milk to the traditional beef stew or ishtu, Moplah cuisine offers a hearty meal for all times of the day.
The culinary style first emerged from the Malabar districts that come under the 'Mappila belt’, which include Kozhikode, Kasargod, Kannur, Wayanad, Thrissur, Palakkad and Malappuram – it is said to have taken its form in fourth century Malabar, when Arab traders travelled to the port of Muziris along the Malabar Coast in search of spices.
A pinch of history
Gulf News Food caught up with 60-year-old Abida Rasheed, a celebrity chef from Kerala, who has specialised in Moplah cuisine, for over 30 years. “Moplah or Mappila cuisine, refers to the food you would find in the Malabar regions of Kerala. We have a lot of influence from the Arab world, from Kuwait to Yemen. We also have influences from Portugal, France, Dutch, Syrian, British and Jewish – but Mappilas came from the Arab world.”
The Arabs had a direct link to Muziris from the Middle East, where they stocked up mainly on two spices – black pepper and cinnamon. The port, was labelled as the ‘spice city’ of Kerala, and ‘murachipattanam’ in the regional language of Malayalam.
Moplah is focused on Indian spices and a lot of ghee or clarified butter; and it is also a strictly non-vegetarian diet.
Charmed by the spice-rich region, the Arabs who came in for business also married into families. This resulted in the spread of Arab influences across the Malabar regions, and its people embraced Arab traditions and most importantly their food.
However, there are certain misconceptions around the cuisine, which claim that it emerged from the Mughal Era, when the Mughals of India came from ancient Iran. “People often assume that because it is an Arab-influenced palate, our food comes from the time of Mughals. But it is not. We do have certain Mughal influences in our cuisine, but that's more focused on cooking styles. Moplah is focused on Indian spices and a lot of ghee or clarified butter; and it is also a strictly non-vegetarian diet.”
A spoonful of ghee
While each dish is made with a combination of regional ingredients, Rasheed highlights the importance of ghee or clarified butter in all Moplah dishes, especially when it comes to tempering. “The ghee is poured first, then a little bit of oil, and then we add the onions, mustard seeds and so on. Each step, each ingredient, each cooking style lends a unique flavour to a dish from Moplah cuisine.
“It is actually a cooking technique, which is quite common in the cuisine… using ghee helps enhance flavours a little better, it gives more depth to meat. The food is quite unique in every aspect. While most dishes in Kerala use coconut in many forms, Moplah cuisine is known for its extensive use of coconut milk as well. We also avoid using oil a lot, except when it comes to tempering.”
Almost all dishes in Moplah cuisine have different kind of tempering, said Rasheed. “Most of them are added to meat and seafood.”
A strictly non-vegetarian diet
“Right from breakfast, you would be served a non-vegetarian dish. It is mainly because we like our proteins served from the break of dawn itself. You would often find a traditional meat-based stew in the morning, lunch is usually focused on seafood dishes and dinner is often again a meat gravy or fry.”
While these are the routine dishes one would find in these regions, meals can vary based on occasions like Ramadan or a wedding. “When there’s a wedding, we start with something sweet – especially when the groom comes home after the wedding. It is usually a boiled egg, served alongside banana fritters. During weddings, of course, biryani is a must; among other dishes, but it’s all meat dominated. Even our desserts are meat-based.”
Gulf News Food also spoke to 55-year-old Sharjah-based Indian businessman Noushad Chakkamalath, who comes from Thalassery in Kerala. “Food is at the core of all celebrations. We serve neichoru or ghee rice with pothu erachi or beef primarily one day before the wedding. After the wedding, we often give the groom a hearty meal. There used to be a drink which is often served the groom – it is a cup of milk tea mixed with egg and this symbolised ‘healthy life ahead’, but it’s not common now.”
A popular dessert of Moplah cuisine include muttamala, which translates to a garland made out of eggs. This dessert, is said to have taken inspiration from the Portuguese fios de ovos, after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set foot in Kerala during the 15th century. Made with egg yolk and sugar syrup, muttamala is traditionally served with pinnanthappam, which is a steamed egg white pudding.
It is all about rice
Many often associate Kerala’s cuisine with parotta, an unleavened and layered flatbread, and beef. But, another interesting fact about the Mopplah cuisine is that it is a rice-dominated cuisine. “We don’t usually have a lot of wheat involved, only in certain dishes do we use wheat, like Aleesa,” explained Rasheed.
Aleesa, another popular dessert dish in Moplah cuisine, is a distant relative of the famed Middle Eastern Haleem and Harees. However, as one would not expect, this dish is sweet unlike its savoury counterparts. “It is made from wheat, a generous amount of meat (usually mutton), coconut and grated and browned onions, often known as birista. It is also made with ghee or clarified butter, and not oil. ”
Adding to this, Chakkamalath explained that Kerala parotta is almost never made at home, however it can be found in every shack and restaurant in and around the Moplah region. “It is quite a labour-intensive process, and is usually done by men in restaurants. Home cooks often stick to ari pathiri or wafer-thin rice flour bread, because it doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare as well.”
Of course, Mappila cuisine isn’t complete without the famed biryani, which is traditionally cooked in large quantities on dum, using firewood. But that too, varies from district to district. “When one thinks of Moplah cuisine, the first thing that comes to mind is the Kozhikkodan biryani or the Thalassery biryani – both of which are a part of us, but not all of us. We are a little more complex than just being limited to biryanis,” explained Rasheed.
But, what is the difference between the two?
“It’s the cooking technique,” explained Noushad’s wife, Prexy Noushad. “In Thalassery or Tellicherri biryani, we use a special spice mix for garam masala, and the onions are fried separately – we call that birista. We also avoid red chillies, but we add green chillies. The masala is cooked separately and then added to the rice, but in Kozhikkodan biryani, everything is mixed and cooked together.
“Mappila biryani differs a lot from region to region. You would even find a different Moplah biryani in Kochi; but all of them will be either meat or seafood.”
However, many dishes from Moplah cuisine seem to be fading over time, according to Chakkamalath. “So in pathiri itself, there are two different kinds – one is the popular ari pathiri, the other one is something called kaipathiri, made using the palm of your hands. It’s slightly thicker than the ari pathiri and is cooked on banana leaves, but it is a rarity now. Another dish is ainas, a popular street food snack, which I’m sure many have forgotten or haven’t eaten yet. It is called madakku in other regional dialects, but it used to be served during tea time quite often.
“During my childhood, chicken was a rarity. We used to eat a lot of eggs, yes, but chicken cooked into a dish was only made during special occasions at the time – and we used to always have our meals seated on a palm-woven mats, so the eating experience used to be much nicer.”
Prexy also said that before bakeries, the Moplah community of Kerala spent hours making various snacks for special occasions. “We made achappam (rose cookies), diamond cuts, unakkayi (banana rolls) ainas or madakku, halwa - in bulk, and all from scratch. Nowadays very few families take the time to make all of this – it is very rare.”
A cuisine for all, understood by few
Thirty-two-year-old Dubai-based expatriate Farsana K from Kerala, said that Moplah cuisine is a fare eaten by all, but understood by a few. “I come from Kozhikode, and we like seafood more than meat. Personally, I feel there is quite a difference in what we serve. For example, in Kerala we are known for our abundance of coconut trees and the use of coconut in every dish. But it is not added in the same way to all our dishes - Moplah food uses coconut milk or ground coconut paste. There’s a varied taste in that itself, and very few would be able to differentiate, outside our community.
“If you take the fish curry itself – there’s a big difference between the red and yellow fish curry. Apart from its colour, the former dish is made using kudampuli or cambodge tamarind, whereas the latter uses coconut milk with pureed tamarind, and tomatoes. We make it at home rarely, because it takes time. Every ingredient is different because it has a story behind it, and that makes all the difference in the cuisine itself.”
Such are the lesser known facts of Kerala’s Moplah cuisine. This community-based cuisine has grown over the years, with some restaurants in the UAE specialising in it and a few homes preserving these dishes; much more than just the Thalassery biryani.
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