Eid on the Malabar Coast
The celebration of Eid has a distinct taste, texture and tradition among Kerala's Mappila community
Be it in the northern or southern states of India, the thought of Eid, like most festivals, evokes memories of feasting—elaborate, languorous, days-long rituals of cooking and eating to consecrate the end of the holy month of Ramzan. But the smells, tastes and textures of the food served on Eid vary significantly in different regions of the country. Some of these culinary delights go back to the ancient past, from where recipes, exotic and complex, have been handed down for centuries, eventually becoming integrated with the taste buds of the local communities.
The Mappila Muslims (also spelt Moplah), settled on Kerala’s Malabar coast, offer a cuisine that is as distinctive for its use of ingredients—heavy on saunf (fennel seeds), with scant use of cumin and garlic (unlike in the northern parts of the country)—as for its taste (mostly deep-fried, with a dazzling aroma of spices, creating layers of flavour). Believed to have descended from the Arab traders who sailed to Kerala in search of spices, especially the much coveted black peppercorn, as early as the seventh century AD, the Mappilas still cook several dishes that seem to have non-Indian origins—different variations of stuffed meat, for example, or the aleesa, a wheat- and meat-based dish slow-cooked in spices that resembles the harisa of Arabic and Persian origin. Mappila food is, however, widely tempered with locally available ingredients such as curry leaves, grated coconut, coconut milk or oil, and bananas.
Last Ramzan, I had the good fortune of joining the family of Aysha Tanya, a food writer and co-founder of Goya Media, a food media production company, at their home in Kannur, Kerala, for iftar (the breaking of the ritual fast at the end of day). An assortment of snacks, almost all delectably deep-fried, some sweet dishes, dry fruits, nuts and refreshments, it was a spread to remember—but then Aysha’s mother, Kathija Hashim, informed us there was a dinner to follow as well. As I made my way through another dozen-odd delicacies, I remember being struck by how different each dish tasted from the next, the taste and texture unique and distinct. My unforgettable takeaway from that evening was a painstakingly cooked, time-consuming dish—mussels coated with ground rice, saunf and grated coconut, then steamed, and, finally, dipped into a fiery chilli-based batter and deep-fried.
The meals on the day of Eid, however, are quite another matter. “Breakfast is a very important affair in our home that day," says Aysha, “but other Mappila families may follow different traditions." The day usually begins with (no surprise) an assortment of deep-fried food: the mutta surka, or a puff-like savoury dish made with rice flour and eggs. It is often had with scrambled eggs on the side. There are other fries as well, especially of spare parts like liver, scooped up with different kinds of pathiris, or flatbreads made with rice flour. And there is, of course, the ubiquitous red fish curry on the table (see recipe). “It’s part of almost every meal at home," says Aysha, “including, of course, Eid."
Ummi Abdulla, 82, widely regarded as the matriarch of Mappila cuisine and author of nine cookbooks, also confirms the primacy of breakfast on Eid. Speaking on the phone from her home in Kozhikode, she says that other than different kinds of pathiris, regular pooris may be served at this meal. The rest of her menu is near identical to Aysha’s, though she adds that the Malabari speciality of ripe banana cooked in thick and thin coconut milk, with wheat husk, jaggery, cardamom powder and milk, to a pongal-like consistency, is a must for the festival.
After breakfast, prayers and social visits to family and friends, it’s time for lunch, a plainer affair consisting of chicken or mutton biryani, served with coconut chutney. “These days, some curries and fries are also added as sides," says Abdulla, “especially by newly-weds, to show off their cooking skills to their families." Dinner is almost the same, with mild variations, such as other kinds of pathiris replacing the biryani, served with different meat curries, meat fries and stuffed chicken.
A popular sweet dish, which seems to play a relatively marginal role in Mappila cuisine, is the unnakai vada (banana steamed, mashed, then stuffed with coconut, eggs, cardamom, sugar and deep-fried). The other favourite is the mutta mala, or thin exquisite garlands of egg fried over a hot sugar syrup. During, after and between these meals, there is always an abundant supply of the famous Sulaimani tea, lightly spiced with a tang of lemon, to keep the appetite roaring, and the conversation flowing.
Red fish curry
250g prawn, shelled and deveined (you can also use mackerel or seer fish)
4 tbsp coconut oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
A small handful of curry leaves
2 green chillies, slit down the centre
1 medium-sized onion, sliced thinly
2 tsp chilli powder, heaped
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 cup water (for the chilli and turmeric paste)
2 cups hot water
1-inch ginger, crushed
5-6 garlic cloves, crushed
Lime-sized ball of tamarind massaged into K cup water and left to soak for 10 minutes
Salt to taste
Mix the turmeric and chilli powder in N cup water to form a thick paste and set aside. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottom pot on a medium flame. Add the mustard seeds and let them splutter. Now add the fenugreek, curry leaves and green chillies. Sauté for a minute or two, until fragrant, and add the onions. Sauté until the onions turn translucent.
Add the chilli and turmeric paste to the onions and mix well. Continue sautéing until the oil separates. Be patient, this will take a good 5 minutes. Now add hot water, and, when it comes to a boil, add salt to taste, ginger and garlic. Let it boil for 5-6 minutes, until the oil once again rises to the top. Pour in the tamarind water and boil for another 2-3 minutes. Finally, add the prawns and let it cook for 5 minutes, or until the gravy reaches a consistency of your liking.
—Recipe from Aysha Tanya’s The Malabar Tea Room blog.