I was lying lazily on my couch watching TV when the spicy aroma of Thalassery Biriyani from the new restaurant on the ground floor came wafting, sensitising my parotid glands. Some chemical reaction took place in my brain and I became a hungry, craving child who waited restlessly for her plate of Biriyani. It was another land, another time.
I have often been enthralled by the variety of cuisines we have around the world and have even been more astonished by the brilliant minds that generated and fashioned the methods by which they satisfy the cravings of our hearts and bellies alike. Food is inseparably connected to our culture and that is exactly why we search for an Indian- North Indian or South Indian – cuisine the moment we are on foreign land. I, too, have such an incorrigible tie to my hometown.
I am a South Indian and the moment people hear about South India, they tend to think of vegetarian food (conveniently forgetting that Hyderabadi Biriyani is from the South). Yes, we love our dosa, Sambar, Idly, chutney and every single thing they associate us with. But it would be nice, for a change, to think that we enjoy other cuisines as much as we enjoy these. Coming back to my point, I am a South Indian, a Keralite to be precise. And which part of Kerala do I belong to? None other than the Malabar region.
MALABAR- THE LAND OF SPICES
Famously known as the land of spices, Malabar even today attracts tourists just as it attracted traders from across the world for centuries. Hemmed by the Western Ghats on one side and laced by the Arabian Sea on the other, it geographically covers the northern part of Bharathapuzha, extending from parts of Thrissur to Palakkad, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Kannur and Kasaragod. The Cheras ruled the land until the 12th century when it was divided into three parts, each ruled by a separate ruler, thereafter. Malabar was the centre of trade relations with the outer world even before Vasco da Gama landed with his 170 men on Kaapad beach in Kozhikode in the year 1498. The region had healthy and amicable relations with Arab traders and travellers until the Colonial intervention.
FOOD IS LOVE
The food tradition of north Kerala or Malabar has immense Arab influence, just like its culture. Usually, the Muslims here have large joint families where the grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and grandchildren live together. In the earlier times, all family members would sit around the same plate and eat with their hands just like the Arabs do. Another very interesting fact regarding the Muslim families in Thalassery(previously called Tellicherry) and Kannur is that the girls are not sent to their husband’s homes after marriage, but the men come and live with their wives in their homes. Thus, the families never become smaller, but only get bigger. These men are endearingly called ‘puyyapla’ meaning bridegroom. The tradition also stemmed from the earlier times when Arab traders made alliances with the local families and resided with the wives in their homes.
As far as food is concerned, half of the job is done if it smells right. And talking about aromas, I vividly remember the appetising smell of Biriyani from Paris Hotel in Thalassery. As a kid, I used to go there with my mom and dad and the aroma will fill our nostrils even before entering the hotel. The anticipation of eating it would make me restless. It has set the standard so high that even now, I tend to compare it with every single biriyani I have eaten since then and I am affirmative that none could reach up to that mark. Maybe that is the thing with our childhood. Childhood memories that leave indelible marks are often associated with food or smell or songs. It may be different for different persons, but that is how it works for me.
ADAPTING FOREIGN TO NATIVE
It is interesting to see that Malabaris have indigenised various dishes by integrating native ingredients giving them a unique flavour. That is exactly why the biriyanis here taste different and better from their other counterparts inside and outside Kerala. There are other food items that have been indigenised to satisfy the taste habits of Malayalees. KuzhiMandi and Alfam are the spiced-up versions of Yemeni ‘mandi’ and roasted chicken. Needless to say, we mallus like it too spicy.
PARADISE FOR FOODIES
Dishes like aleesa and muttamaala are served along with Biriyani and ghee rice during weddings. For breakfast, they make aripathiri, arirotti,neypathiri and muttasorka. During the time of Ramadan fasting, each region of Malabar has unique food items with which they break their fast. Generally, Kozhiyada, chatty pathiri, cutlet, samosa, muttamaala ,unnakkaya, pazhamnerachath, pazhampori, irachipathiri and muttasorka are prepared for breaking the fast. Later after the prayer, when men return from mosques the main course is served which include poori, noolputtu, neypathiri, pathiri, along with a variety of fish and meat curries.
Another unique speciality is the kozhikkal which literally means ‘Chicken drumsticks’. But it is actually made of tapioca, which is sliced into thin sticks, dipped in a spicy flour batter and deep-fried and served hot. But my most favourite Malabari snack of all time is arikkadukka or fried stuffed mussels. Mussels are very common on the beaches in Malabar. They are cleaned without removing the shells and are stuffed with rice flour dough and steamed. Once cooked, the fillings are taken out from the shells and dipped in a runny, spicy batter and deep-fried. I just can’t begin to explain how heavenly it tasted.
Thalassery has always been historically important as far as the baking industry in Kerala is concerned. The first bakery was started by Mambally Bapu in 1880, and it was in Thalassery that the first cake was introduced in Kerala. My childhood memories are always filled up with the sweetness of the wrapped tea cakes from the ever so famous Jayabharathi Bakery, which would just melt into my tongue in no time. My cousins in Cochin would wait for our arrival as we used to pack snacks from the bakery for them.
The Persian Faloodeh was first introduced in Kerala in Thalassery, which was also indigenised to suit our taste buds. It is a mixture of fruit salad, dry fruits, nuts, vermicelli, rose milk and vanilla ice cream.
Malabari cuisine, especially Thalassery cuisine, is so popular in the other part of Kerala that they have also started making these dishes. Also, lots of Thalassery bakers have branched out as they have customers everywhere.
There is a lot more to explore and write about authentic Malabari cuisine as it also comprises of food habits of other religious communities and immigrant communities as well. Growing up in Thalassery, I have always been lucky enough to have tasted various varieties of food as we had friends belonging to different communities.
I always thought sharing food is one of the best qualities we humans should imbibe. It sparks relations, reinforces affection and maintains unity. There is almost nothing you can’t solve over a cup of shared tea or coffee. Such memories stay with you forever. The food you share might kindle memories of a distant home in another person just as it did mine.
Contributor: Sheema Shireen
About our Writing Program Student
Hailing from God’s own country, I am a teacher by profession. Apart from reading and gardening, I try a hand at writing poetry when inspired. I believe that an independent woman is a happy and content one, and I am on my route to achieve that.