Before Ummi Abdulla published her tome of a cookbook, Malabar Muslim Cookery, in 1981, this form of cooking practiced on the Malabar coast of Kerala was unfamiliar outside the confines of home kitchens. The seminal cookbook became the quintessential bible of Mappila cuisine, especially for homesick Malayalis outside Kerala. For years, it served as a source of authentic Mappila recipes, tried and tested in Ummi’s kitchen.
“When I started out, there were no cookbooks on Mappila cuisine,” Ummi recalls from her house in Calicut, a cosy space lit by the golden sunshine of this coastal region. Predominantly meat-rich, Mappila dishes also borrow heavily from the region’s wealth of fresh seafood such as the unique kallumakai (green mussels), which are only harvested on the Malabar coast and almost exclusively used in Mappila cooking. The flavourful dishes also utilise feisty spices, roasted coconut, shallots and curry leaves. But what makes the cuisine particularly interesting is its Arabic influence. According to many historians, Arab merchants arrived on the shores of Kerala as early as the 7th century AD, and Malayalis from the Malabar coast married their food traditions with these Middle Eastern influences. While Mappila cuisine became popular regionally, it remained elusive elsewhere in India until pioneering cookbook writers and chefs like Ummi started giving voice to its culinary ingenuity.
The success of her first title and subsequent books led Ummi – who only started cooking at 40 as a way to pass the time after her daughters left home – to become a foremost authority for the cuisine in India. Since then, she has designed menus and taught top chefs at major high-end brands including the Taj hotels, Leela Kovalam, ITC and Green Park, as well as restaurant chain Ente Keralam.
Eight cookbooks (two in English and six in Malayalam) later, the 85-year-old Ummi, gracefully bejeweled and draped in flowing saris , is out with a new book. Titled A Kitchen Full of Stories, the book’s pages are replete with Mappila favourites like irachi pathiri (steamed rice-flour flatbread stuffed with meat), chemeen biryani (spiced prawn rice) and ayila nirachathu (mackerel stuffed with spices and ground with roasted coconut).
Together with her granddaughter Nazaneen Jalaludheen, Ummi compiled an exhaustive list before using Facebook to invite volunteers to test the recipes. Dozens of fans, from her 25,000-strong following, jumped in, helping Ummi and Nazaneen complete what she says will be her final book.
Though Ummi regularly contributes to food columns in local women’s magazines, she feels there’s no need for yet another cookbook from her kitchen. “There have been so many cookbooks recently. The internet has also made the cuisine more accessible. I simply don’t think there is any need for another book from me,” says the octogenarian who also runs a successful catering business from out of her home kitchen.
Although A Kitchen Full of Stories may be her swansong in cookbook publishing, there is little doubt that Ummi’s abiding passion in bringing Mappila cuisine its deserved limelight will live on.
Origins of Mappila cuisine
The Arab merchants who came to the Malabar coast for trade in the 7th century, looking for pepper and other spices, also brought their food traditions with them. Many settled and married Kerala locals, and the interracial matrimony gave birth to a new form of cuisine. The flakiness of Malabar pathiri (rice flour pancake) andparotta (layeredflatbread)have their origins in filo pastry from the Middle East. The black tea, Sulaimani chai – ubiquitous in Mappila cuisine – is a localised version of the Arabic kahwah (traditional green tea). Because of these cultural crossovers, it’s not a stretch to compare Mappila cuisine with Southeast Asia’s Nyonya cuisine.
Chemeen Porichathu (Fried prawns)
This is one of the simplest Mappila recipes to master.
200g shelled prawns
3 tsp chilli powder
4 cloves garlic
4cm piece cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp aniseed
Salt to taste
Oil for frying
Clean and wash the prawns with a little salt before grinding all the ingredients (except the prawns) with salt. Add the prawns to the ground ingredients and fry in a little water until the prawns are cooked and all the water is absorbed. Heat the oil in a kadai (a deep, heavy pot for slow-cooking) before adding the prawns and frying till crisp.
About the book
A Kitchen Full of Stories is a collector’s edition coffee table cookbook. Taking seven years to produce, it’s packed with intriguing anecdotes that offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Ummi Abdulla’s life as a cookbook author and as the matriarch of Mappila cuisine in India.
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.