I have always loved how close to nature Kerala cuisine is – in cooking methods and in ingredients. Despite modern cooking practices, many households in Kerala still use age-old methods because the food simply tastes better that way. One of these methods is the use of different kinds of leaves as holding pans for steaming or grilling different foods.
One of my favourites is kumbil or kumbilappam; for the uninitiated foodie, appam usually means some kind of bread/cake in Malayalam. However, most of the items we need to make this mini leaf-cake is unavailable in Dubai. Like all Malayali moms with a purpose, this is no deterrent to my mother; so here’s how we get the taste of home in Dubai.
All about the snack
Kumbilappam is made with rice flour, Kerala’s king of fruits – the jackfruit – coconut and jaggery steamed in leaves on the stove or brick oven. A very common snack among people from Kottayam, which is where I am from, we use vazhana or therali leaves to makes these mini-cakes.
The therali plant is a relative of the much-loved cinnamon; its leaves fragrant enough to have you drooling as soon as the pot opens. The batter alone baked or steamed would never taste as good without the leaves; the fragrance getting infused into these cakes and balancing the sweetness.
Prepping for travel
We (meaning my mom) carefully pluck therali leaves from our backyard at home and wash each of them carefully.
Therali is never cultivated on a largescale and is a free-growing plant in most households. There should be no tears in any of the leaves chosen.
After cleaning the leaves, my mom wipes them down and wraps them in newspaper, and then puts the whole package in a polythene bag. As soon as we get here, she places the leaves in the fridge, to use as and when she decides to make kumbilappam.
The cake or filling
Jackfruit has officially been recognised as Kerala’s official fruit – every part of the fruit and the tree are used by Malayalis in various ways. From curries and breads to desserts and fruit salads, jackfruits are as versatile as they come.
Jackfruit or the kind we love, homegrown in our backyard, is hard to come by in the UAE so we cook and carry it with us. No, we aren’t crazy, we just love our food.
The prep for the jackfruit involves choosing a really ripe jackfruit and taking the petals out. The fruit is then diced and transferred to a pan. This is then caramelised with grated jaggery (a lot of it) for a long hour or even two depending on the quantity. It should have a dark, golden brown colour and lose all moisture, to come to a sticky consistency that can be rolled into balls.Towards the end you could also add powdered cardamom and a spoon of butter.
Once the mixture reaches required consistency, move it into containers, and into the freezer as soon as it cools. This will keep good in the freezer for up to a year.
We then carry these containers to Dubai. We make sure that we wait until the last possible hour to pack them in the luggage and then ensure we put them into the freezer as soon as we get home here.
Now that we have everything, whenever we are in need of a ‘kumbilappam’ – which is every day – my mom takes a mixing bowl. She adds equal parts rice flour and the frozen jackfruit-jaggery mixture (microwaved to allow malleability) with grated coconut. My dad then proceeds to roll and mix this well for an evenly mixed batter.
My mom takes the leaves out, wiping off any residual moisture from the fridge, and then shapes them into cones. She fills the batter 3/4ths of the way and uses each leaf’s stem-end to seal the cone. She places the cones in a steamer pot on the stove and in 30 minutes, our kumbilappam is ready to be devoured.
For all the time it takes us to make this snack, it takes us less than five minutes to finish it.