The Mappila or Moplah cuisine of North Kerala is a unique—and delicious—amalgamation of Keralan and Arab influences.
It’s 11 in the morning, and Moosa is offering me a hard drink. Impeccably dressed in a shirt and veshti, both white, he comes across as the sort of guy it’s best not to refuse, so I accept. The Paul John is smooth, one of the best whiskeys I’ve ever had — and I’ve had a few.
We are at Ayisha Manzil, a legendary heritage homestay that Moosa runs with his wife Faiza in Thalassery, which is in Kerala’s Kannur district. Set on a hilltop overlooking the Arabian Sea, the 160-year-old house belonged to a certain Murdoch Brown (who is credited with having introduced the Christmas cake to Kerala), but it’s been in Moosa’s family for nearly 120 years. I do not exaggerate when I say the view can come with the best in the world—from Bali to the Italian coast. Known for their warmth and hospitality, the Moosas are also legendary cooks, specializing in the cuisine of their community, the Mappila.
Lunch is served. I imagine the table bending under the weight of such profusion. It’s an ample feast by any standard. There’s a simple meen (fish) biriyani and a complex erachi choru (mutton pulao). There’s petti pathiri—an iconic dish of the Mappilas—fried squares of dough stuffed with shredded meat and eggs. There’s also nei pathiri or rice poori to soak up the vazhuthana theeyal (aubergine in tomato sauce). There’s watalappam, a coconut custard pudding with origins in Sri Lanka, to round off the repast. Faiza is not around, so this is all Moosa’a handiwork—and to think the man is almost a vegetarian. It’s a delicious and seamless mix of traditions, centuries of culinary history served in a meal.
So who exactly are the Mappilas and how did this cuisine evolve? For that, let’s brush up our history quickly. For thousands of years, the Malabar coast has attracted traders from across the seas in search of spices — which were worth their weight in gold in the ancient world. Although gold, ivory, peacocks and cotton were also in demand, spices topped the popularity charts. It was the Arabs who knew the secrets of the monsoon winds, which would propel them from the Red Sea directly to the Malabar coast in summer and vice versa in winter. The traders would stay on for the few months in between, before favorable winds took them back home. The Romans eventually discovered this secret but once the Roman Empire collapsed, the Arabs were back. These traders formed marital alliances with local women and also brought Islam to the region. And that’s how the Mappila community was born. In fact, converts to the new religion were liberated from the fetters of the caste system and the name Mappila may have come from ‘Maha Pillai’ or ‘held in high esteem’ (a term of respect for the Arab son-in-law, perhaps?).
This prosperous community of traders and merchants eventually evolved its own cuisine, marrying the best of their culinary traditions with the rich variety of ingredients available along the Malabar coast. It goes without saying that the profuse use of spices—particularly, black pepper, cardamom and clove—is a hallmark of the cuisine.
Mappila cuisine is big on delicious snacks. Many of these are consumed during the holy month of Ramadan. Alisa, a wheat-and-meat potage, which is consumed in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as well, is consumed in Kerala during Ramadan as well. Bananas fried in ghee, jalebi made from egg, samosas stuffed with semolina and cashew nuts, all of these are popular snacks. But nothing can beat the appeal of pathiri, a thin chapati made from rice flour on a griddle. Sometimes pathiri is deep fried or steamed. Savor and sweet, using a variety of flours, stuffed or plain — there are over 50 varieties of pathiri in Mappila cuisine.
Communal eating is common among the Mappila during festivals and marriages. A circular palm leaf mat called supra is placed on the ground, around which as many as 10 people sit and eat off a common plate. Mutta maala, a sweet made with egg yolks, is served only at weddings.
One can’t mention Mappila food and not talk about the biriyanis. All Muslim communities in India boast their own Biriyanis, but the ones from Malabar are special. Unlike the Mughlai biriyani, the flavor here doesn’t come from the marinade but from an eight-spice powder called the Mappila garam masala. Also, instead of basmati, the Mappila use the short-grained jeerige shala for their biriyanis. Given this is the coast, there are a number of seafood biriyanis in the Mappila repertoire, a tinge of rosewater taking care of any overly fishy flavours. Ghee rice is a Mappila specialty, although the region mostly prefers to cook in coconut oil.
Another specialty of the Malabar region is kallumakkai, the green-lipped mussel that is found in abundance along this coast. The Mappila like to have it curried, stuffed or fried.
The other legend of Mappila cuisine is Ummi Abdulla. Being married at an early age and growing up in a joint family, the octogenarian only started cooking in earnest in her forties. She has numerous Malabar cookbooks under her belt and has, like the Moosas, cooked Mappila food in many parts of the world. She has conducted cooking classes for Thalassery biriyani, pathiris as well as a variety of curries. She is also an innovator and has come up with her own recipes, like a Kerala-style lasagna.
Not only Arab, Mappila cuisine draws from Yemeni and Persian cuisines as well—not to mention the traditional food of Kerala and some colonial influences for good measure. Yet again, this goes to show that India has always been amenable to embracing external influences, especially on the culinary front. And Mappila (the anglicised version is Moplah, by the way) is just one of the many cuisines that prove over and over again how syncretic and open-minded Indian food is.
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