Hari Menon is ravished by the irresistible charms of Mappila cuisine.
Photographs by Sanjoy Ghosh
" Watch for the smoke,” I keep reminding myself when to add spices to the oil heating in front of me. I flub the timing anyway. I’m quite demonstrably not a cook. The lady by my side routinely works magic in the kitchen, though, and she gently helms my seer fish curry away from disaster towards something that looks and smells quite wonderful. I’m a privileged student body of one, and I’m getting a master class from Faiza Moosa at Ayisha Manzil, her gorgeous 150-year-old home in Thalassery, Kerala. She’s giving me just a tiny taste of Mappila cooking. Mappila, or Malabar Muslim, food must be the least known of India’s great cuisines. At its sublime best it bows before none of the heavy hitters in Indian fine dining—the Bengali-Hyderabadi-Kashmiri-Lucknowi pantheon.
Many great dishes owe their creation to a meeting of cultures. Mappila food can trace its genesis to the Arab sailors who have been trading along Kerala’s coast for millennia. They would typically marry local women, and when Islam spread across their homeland, they brought their faith too; their settlements along the Malabar coast are among the very oldest Muslim communities outside West Asia. Equally, they were quick to pick up local traditions like the matrilineal inheritance found in many parts of Kerala. They also brought their recipes. The commercial impetus for coming to Kerala may have been to trade in the land’s fabled spices, but over the centuries the Muslim communities they established along the northern half of Kerala’s coast would evolve a cuisine that drew heavily on ingredients and cooking styles from both local and Arab cultures without ever tasting quite like either forebear.
For instance, the visitors brought the idea of eating bread with food to this land of rice and kanji (gruel) eaters. Local availability meant that many of them would become rice- rather than wheat-based. Mappila cuisine is actually a critically missing chapter in the story of bread, since there are more than 50 varieties of unleavened breads, known generically as pathiris, as well as porothas, which are made from refined wheat.
Moreover even the spiciest Arab and West Asian food, which is usually from Iraq and Yemen, is nowhere near as fiery as Indian food; it would seem
quite bland to the average subcontinental palate. Likewise, across most of Kerala, it can be hard to find an alternative to coconut oil as a cooking medium. Like the mustard oil used in eastern India, coconut oil lends a very distinctive taste to food. This is great if you like it but for outsiders either oil’s flavour can be an acquired taste.
Mappila food meanwhile is certainly spicier than West Asian food, but unlike plenty of Indian cooking it is neither overpoweringly so and nor does any one spice dominate. Therein lies an irony, since it was spices, in particular pepper, that drew the Arabs here to begin with. Yet one spice that a top chef like Faiza Moosa will not use is pepper, as its sheer strength allows little space to any other flavour. The strong taste of coconut oil can also upset the balance, so many traditional Mappila recipes work best with ghee or refined oil. In any case, it would be quite sacrilegious to make the classic Mappila dish, biriyani (yes, it is spelt and pronounced that way in South India, and yes, it does taste different from its siblings from Hyderabad and Lucknow), with anything other than ghee.
The easiest place to begin a search for Mapp¬ila food is Kozhi¬kode. Today, Kozhikode is a pleasant seaside city. It offers
only occasional hints of its historical importance as a major trading port, known equally to Arab and Chinese merchants and sailors. Much of the world’s population cannot pronounce its name, so it’s easy to see why invaders have sought to renamec it. Tipu Sultan apparently wanted to call it Firozabad, though it’s anybody’s guess what the Malayali’s famously idiosyncratic pronunciation of foreign words would have done to that. The pragmatic British somewhat less ambitiously settled for Calicut.
Close to Kozhikode’s beach is an entire locality that ought to be a heritage monument. This is Kuttichira, where around 250 Mappila families live, many in traditional Kerala houses, some hundreds of years old. Even these, though, are positively brand-new compared to the three most famous mosques in the locality, the Mishkal Masjid, the Muchundi Mosque and the Juma Masjid, which are between 700 and 1,000 years old. These are beautiful old buildings, and with their clear debt to traditional Kerala temple architecture, they look like no mosques you’ll find anywhere else in the world. And very close at hand, on Convent Cross Road, not far from the beach, you’ll also find Zain’s Hotel.