Indian classic: Mappila Food | Traveldine

The Mappila or Moplah cuisine of North Kerala is a unique and delicious amalgamation of Kerala and Arabic influences.

It’s 11 a.m. and Moosa offers me an alcoholic drink. Impeccably dressed in a shirt and a veshti, both white, he passes for the kind of guy that it is better 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.

Ayisha Manzil, a heritage homestay in Thalassery, is the home of superlative Mappila food.

We are at Ayisha Manzil, a legendary homestay run by Moosa with his wife Faiza in Thalassery, Kannur district of Kerala. Situated on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea, the 160-year-old house belonged to a certain Murdoch Brown (who is credited with introducing the Christmas cake to Kerala), but has been in the Moosa family for nearly 120 years old. I’m not exaggerating when I say the view can rival 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.

Cp moosa, who has cooked mappila dishes all over the world, passing an instruction to the waiter.
CP Moosa, who has cooked Mappila dishes around the world, passing an instruction to the waiter.

Lunch is served. I imagine the table bending under the weight of such profusion. It’s a hearty feast in every way. There is a simple meen (fish) biriyani and a complex erachi choru (mutton pulao). There’s the petti pathiri – an iconic dish of the Mappilas – fried squares of pastry stuffed with shredded meat and eggs. There is also nei pathiri or Poori rice to soak up vazhuthana theeyal (eggplant in tomato sauce). Watalappam, a coconut cream pudding from Sri Lanka, completes the meal. Faiza isn’t there, so that’s all Moosa’a’s job – and to say the man is almost a vegetarian. It is a delicious and seamless blend of traditions, centuries of culinary history served in one meal.

Petti pathiri is an emblematic dish of the Mappilas.
Petti pathiri is an emblematic dish of the Mappilas.

So who exactly are the Mappilas and how has this cuisine evolved? For that, let’s quickly refresh our story. For thousands of years, the Malabar Coast attracted traders from overseas 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 propelled them from the Red Sea directly to the Malabar coast in summer and vice versa in winter. Traders stayed a few months in between, before favorable winds carried them 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 introduced Islam to the area. And this is how the Mappila community was born. In fact, converts to the new religion were freed from the shackles 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? ).

A delicious mappila spread.  This community loves to eat and be entertained.
A delicious Mappila spread. This community loves to eat and be entertained.

This thriving community of traders and merchants eventually developed their 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 abundant use of spices – especially black pepper, cardamom and cloves – is a hallmark of the cuisine.

Mappila cuisine is rich in delicious snacks. Many of them are eaten during the holy month of Ramadan. Alisa, a wheat and meat soup, also eaten in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, is also eaten in Kerala during Ramadan. Bananas fried in ghee, egg-based jalebi, samosas stuffed with semolina and cashew nuts, all these snacks are popular. But nothing can beat the appeal of pathiri, a thin chapati made with rice flour on a griddle. Sometimes pathiri is fried or steamed. Savor and sweet, using a variety of flours, stuffed or plain – there are over 50 varieties of pathiri in Mappila cuisine.

The Biriyanis are a feature of the Muslim Mappila community.
The Biriyanis are a feature of the Mappila Muslim community.

Communal meals are common among the Mappila during festivals and weddings. A circular palm leaf carpet called above is placed on the floor, around which up to 10 people sit and eat from a common plate. Mutta maala, a sweet made from egg yolks, is served only at weddings.

Can’t mention Mappila food and not talk about biriyanis. All Muslim communities in India have their own biriyanis, but those in Malabar are special. Unlike the Mughlai biriyani, the flavor here does not come from the marinade but from an eight-spice powder called Mappila garam masala. Also, instead of basmati, the Mappila people use the short grain jeerige shala for their biriyanis. Given that it’s the coast, there are a number of seafood biriyanis in the Mappila repertoire, a rosewater hue taking care of all the flavors too fishy. Ghee rice is a specialty of Mappila, although the region generally prefers cooking in coconut oil.

Another specialty of the Malabar region is kallumakkai, the green-lipped mussel found in abundance along this coast. The Mappila like to curry, stuff it or fry it.

Watalappam, originally from Sri Lanka, shows the wide variety of influences in Mappila cuisine.
Watalappam, originally from Sri Lanka, shows the wide variety of influences in Mappila cuisine.

The other legend of Mappila cuisine is Ummi Abdulla. Married very early and having grown up in a common family, the octogenarian only began to cook seriously in his forties. She has many Malabar cookbooks to her credit and has, like the Moosas, cooked Mappila dishes 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, such as Kerala lasagna.

Not only Arabic cuisine, but also Mappila cuisine draws inspiration from Yemeni and Persian cuisines, not to mention traditional Kerala cuisine and some colonial influences for good measure. Again, this shows that India has always been willing to accept outside influences, especially in the culinary arena. And Mappila (the anglicized version is Moplah, by the way) is just one of many cuisines that prove over and over how syncretic and open-minded Indian cuisine is.

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