Go to any corner of north Kerala and the air will be thick with the mouth-watering aroma of Malabar spices, ghee and coconut oil. From lip-smacking tidbits to an array of main courses such as the Thalassery biryani, there’s something for every taste.
During the month of Ramada, when Muslims fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset, the permitted meals take on a special importance. Each year, a group of youngsters in Mouval, a sleepy village in Kasarkode, just up the road from The Hermitage is busy preparing the dough for their special samosas. Every Ramadan these NRIs flock to their hometown with the express aim of making and selling Mouval samosas - one of the most popular items on the snack platter. The group makes between 60,000 to 100, 000 samosas every day and caters to at least three districts in north Kerala. During the rest of the year, they are employed at a major F&B company in the Middle East. "Our fillings are different," says Mauval Ibrahim, a member of the group, without divulging what it is exactly that makes their snack so tempting.
Kerala's Malabar region is known for many such ethnic Moplah (or Mappila - the local term for Muslims in the state) dishes. About 200 of these delicacies are savoured especially during Ramadan. Many non-Muslims too visit Kozhikode and Thalassery, the two main hubs of Malabari cuisine, to savour this special cuisinse.
"We never use anything artificial to enhance the flavour of our dishes, but allow the natural flavours of the ingredients to come out," says celebrity Moplah chef Abida Rasheed, who once cooked no less than 72 Malabari items for a breakfast TV show. Often called the ambassador of Moplah cuisine, she always travels with her cooking vessels such as the uruli (brass cooking pot) and cheena chetty (frying pan) when she conducts food fests. Now her youngest daughter Nafisa Rasheed, a communication graduate, is set to make her mark in this domain.
Moplah food was influenced by the food habits of Arab traders who, centuries ago, came to the Malabar region in search of spices. It also draws inspiration from the cuisines of later trading groups like the Portuguese and the Dutch. "The perfect blend of several cultures led to the creation of a cuisine that uses local ingredients with techniques and concepts borrowed from faraway lands," says gourmet writer Aysha Tanya, who is from Thalassery.
Malabar's exotic spices lured many, including the Chinese, the French and finally, the British. The proof as they say is in the pudding or the alisa, a delicious porridge made of wheat, chicken pieces, grated onion and coconut, that originated in the Yemen. Another dish, the mutta mala, made of egg yolk and sugar syrup, is similar to the Portuguese fios de ovos. Kozhikode, where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, is also famous for its different varieties of the sticky sweets called halwa. Besides fruit-based and vegetable platters, Moplah cuisine includes a variety of mutton, fish and shell fish dishes. Thalassery dum biryani tops the list of main courses.
"Like the warmth of the people, Malabar cuisine tickles the palette of food lovers," says Oscar-winning sound artist Resul Pookutty, who is from south Kerala. He points out that while most of the dishes maintain their ethnicity, those served in Malabar are quite different from his native south Keralan dishes. There’s no getting away from it: Malabar is a very special place!