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 Mappila food is Kozhikode. 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 rename 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 encounter 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.
Zain’s is where Kozhikode’s foodies go for their biriyani fix. There’s a good reason why the lane outside the restaurant fills quickly with cars, bikes and people. It isn’t just the biriyani. The dishes Zainabi Noor’s kitchen turns out every day are among the best examples of Mappila cooking you can get anywhere. It’s been over three decades since Zainabi started this restaurant, a pioneering woman entrepreneur. Today, as she surveys her popular realm with a mixture of businesslike efficiency and grandmotherly charm, it’s hard to believe her critics gave the venture a month.
Her husband and partner, Noor Mohammed, an Afghan who once played football for Kerala, takes me through the day’s specials, most of which customers can check out in a glass cabinet in the restaurant — a good thing for visitors, since the menu is entirely in Malayalam. There’s the wonderfully fragrant prawn and chicken biriyani; kozhi adachitathu (whole chicken stuffed with eggs) which is half-cooked in masala, then fried, before being returned to the masala; the wonderful meen pathiri, a rice-based bread this time, steamed in plantain leaves with a fried fish and savoury stuffing; and, to finish with, unnakai, made from mashed boiled bananas, mixed with eggs, sugar, nuts and raisins before being deep fried, and chattipathiri, a savoury dessert made of refined flour pathiris layered with a mixture of beaten eggs, cardamom and sugar, with cashew, poppy seeds and raisins added.
The sweet that Kozhikode is most famous for, though, is best sampled at a specialist store. This is Calicut halwa, a heavy, glutinous confection so popular that the city’s first major commercial avenue, Sweet Meat (or SM) Street, was named after it. The original version is black halwa, made from refined flour, sugar, palm sugar and cooked in coconut oil. This, along with other variations in yellow, orange and red and green (these shades usually owe more to colouring agents than flavours, though mango, orange and pista halwas, some made with refined oil or ghee, are popular), is a great favourite in Kerala.
The coconut oil is a sign that two culinary traditions are meeting, and Northern Kerala is one of the few areas in vegetarian-rich India — Goa and Kashmir are the best examples — where this meeting happens between two established non-vegetarian traditions. The Thiya community offers a fascinating counterpoint to Mappila food, which is, relatively speaking, subtly spiced. In the use of spices like perinjeerakam (fennel) and in cooking processes, Mappila food diverges markedly from the more sharply flavoured constituents that make up the more robust (read spicy!) Thiya recipes. Thiya dishes like varthaerachi kozhi curry or thengaerachi kozhi curry announce themselves in no uncertain manner.
Ground Zero of this culinary conjunction is the 60-year-old Paragon restaurant, on Kozhikode’s Kannur Road. Sumesh Govind is the third generation in his family to run Paragon: “We offer you a fusion of Mappila and Thiya styles,” he says. It’s clearly a popular option. Paragon is large; its three levels seat 240, and it’s always full.
Paragon’s head chef Vijayan Pillai takes us on a tour of his kitchen. There’s biriyani, of course, cooking in giant dough-sealed vessels. A beef curry steams in a corner, while stacks of pomfret and mackerel gleaming with bright red masala, await the frying pan. Nearby a cook slams a stack of hot-off-the-pan parottas edgewise, instantly they flake into light layers that will go down a treat with my tamarind fish. I’m seeing what Govind means when he talks of fusion. The fish (in this case a white pomfret, though the dish is arguably even better with karimeen, or pearl spot) has an unusual tanginess, an almost pickle-like, taste. Equally robust are the Malabari dry fried prawns that I have with my more finely flavoured chicken biriyani. Another star in the Paragon menu is the meen polichathu, fish cooked in a plantain leaf.
This is some of the tastiest food I have eaten in years of dragging my greed across India. Still, there is a good reason that a foodie will get misty-eyed about, say Lucknow, though not about Bangalore, even though in general Bangalore is an incomparably superior place to eat. The real question is: how transcendent was the experience of eating the very best food a place has to offer? A Lucknowi galaouti kabab moulded by a master is a spiritual experience.
So does Mapilla food pass my galaouti test? To find out, I go to Thalassery, a town about two hours north of Kozhikode. It used to be famous for pepper trading, with its grand, fading spice warehouses by the sea, and as the place where Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, took time off from fighting Tipu Sultan to get the locals to play cricket — the first time Indians were reported to have played it.
But it’s on the contemporary world gourmet map for a different reason. Here, at Ayisha Manzil, Faiza and C.P. Moosa run a boutique hotel in a beautiful home built on a crag overlooking the Arabian Sea. Faiza Moosa is an utter artist of Mappila cooking, and even a single meal is enough to show where an already tasty cuisine can go when you can afford the time, expense and effort needed to elevate it to true fine dining status.
I’m not at my galaouti test yet, but there’s another little check to do first. A great chef can upset your prejudices, which is why I recommend trying the foods you dislike when you’re in the presence of a master. For example, I cannot understand what anyone sees in okra, aubergine or bitter gourd. Yet after eating Faiza’s bitter gourd and aubergine thiyals (a hot curry) and her okra pachadi (the vegetable mysteriously manages to be crisp and juicy and not even slightly slippery despite being covered in a lightly spiced curd base), I realise it’s only the second time in over 40 years that I’ve truly enjoyed these vegetables.
Three meals later, and I’ve cut a steady and quite delightful path through beef fry, chicken korma, fried as well as stuffed mussels, tamarind prawns, a superb mutta mala (a fiendishly tricky dish to make; egg yolk is drizzled through a handheld leaf cone into boiling sugar syrup, decorated with egg-white diamonds), even my seer fish curry, and it’s time for a moment of reckoning.
The mutton biriyani is possibly the best I’ve ever had; so delicately flavoured and fragrant that it fairly boggles the mind to imagine that Faiza’s fish biriyani is rated even better. That isn’t all, though. To me heaven must surely smell like a boulangerie; I love breads that much. I’ve had appams, a rice-based bread known as mutta sirka, for its stylised resemblance to an egg, kannam pathiri, a wheat-based bread with the finest flaky layers, so named because it should be as fine as an eyelash, and erachi pathiri (meat bread). This is the haute cuisine version of a local street dish, which is meat stuffed in a pathiri. The embellishments include egg, and a fine dusting of sugar. This is sometimes the dish with which people break their Ramzan fasts, and it’s absolutely stunning.
It’s my galaouti moment, too. This is the sort of food where you’ll stagger away from a great meal. But you’ll never say, “Never again”. It’s only a question of when you have the wherewithal to eat some more.