May 4, 2014 By Basith

Kayikka’s Biriyani – More Than a Recipe

kayee‘Kayikka’s Mutton Biriyani’ – the reputation is  such that, it made Indian Picasso – late MF Hussain wander throughout Cochin for two days searching for the outlet, during his stay at Taj Malabar, Kochi. The flavoursome description of the dish by an Ernakulum based NRI couple,  while in London had tempted his taste buds and he was desperate to have his stomach full of Kayikka’s Mutton Biriyani, rather than anything the five star menu of Taj could offer.

At last he was fortunate enough to find the traditional outlet: Kayees Rahmatullah Hotel (‘hotel’ being interchangeably used for restaurant in Kerala) at Mattanchery, from where he ordered their trump card dish – the Mutton Biriyani.

Instead of spelling out ‘I need a mutton leg piece in my Biriyani’, he drew a portrait of the leg portion of a goat to place his order and within the time span of having that Biriyani, he extended that leg to make a complete black sketch portrait of a goat and presented it to Kayikka’s son Mustafa – that was MF’s way of saying ‘thank you’  for the awesome experience he had with the  world’s best Biriyani!

When MF Hussain visited the place, VK Kayi [known as Kayikka] had demised and it was his son Mustafa running the restaurant.

The great painter was back again after a few years with fond memories of the aroma and flavour of the Kayees Biriyani and this time he presented them with a black sketch portrait of a double humped camel moving along a desert with a minaret and the phrase ‘La ilaaha Illallah’ written in Arabic featuring the background. The million dollar worth gift from the epic painter still decorates the age-old, traditionally maintained walls of the outlet along with the whole lot of articles and news clippings published in the major news dailies, journals and magazines in praise of the Biriyani served.

Vishy Shenoy – well renowned as a Biriyani Connoisseur, has tasted almost 50 varieties of biriyanis across the world, and did not have to think twice beforeselecting Kayikka’s Biriyani as the world’s best.  Malayalam film star Mammooty feels that, more than just the peculiarities of the Biriyani, it is the love served along with it, that makes Kayikka’s Biriyani dearest to one’s heart. When NRI Keralites residing at NewYork planned to organise a get-together back home, they preferred Fort Kochi and the sole reason was none other than having a delicious feast on Kayikka’s Mutton Biriyani, for which they placed order prior to booking the venue.

Hard Grind

Get-together functions,  official meetings and trips to Kochi for many would always be a pretext to steal a gastronomical foray into Kayees. You can’t find one having Kayees Biriyani in a rush; instead they will relish it to its full along with the tangy date pickle, vinegar salad and the pappad fried in coconut oil.  To cap it all, a hot Sulaimani would give a great feel to the customers washing their intestinal track all the way; of course their wallet too  remains unaffected as it would cost only 90 INR for a Mutton Biriyani.

The recipe of this epic Biriyani indeed was not a ‘one day miracle’. Kayikka took almost 15 years to finalise the recipe after experimenting and tasting it with a spoon,  with undying passion and devotion. That passion stayed with him when he was 84 and bed ridden. Mustafa recalls the experience of finding his father experimenting new recipes and improvising on existing ones  with a burner and pan placed adjacent to the bed. “He was barely able to move, but this didn’t stop him from cooking” says Mustafa.

Kayikka just like many other youths of colonial India,  got recruited to the British East India Company, but of course guns, tanks or grenades did not charm him; what did was the culinary spark – the art of cooking and serving it which led him to the army canteen, taste in tongue; he was able to win the hearts of both the British and Indian army cadets.  Naturally this provoked the British chef in the canteen, as he found his position being challenged and Kayikka was soon fired out of the company.

It was since then that he started working in the Bombay Hotel, Kochi as a waiter. He found this job rather more uninteresting and decided to start a tea stall named ‘Rahmatullah’ [God’s grace] at Mattanchery with just some breakfast snacks and tea in the year 1948. Kayikka soon became  an indispensable part of wedding functions at Mattanchery, Fort Kochi regions which then, like Malabar, were centres of spice trade and  he knew well, how to impart the aroma and flavour of the rare blend of spices available there.

It was those regular customers at tea stall who then asked Kayikka, “Why can’t you serve lunch as well at Rahmatullah, and turn it a restaurant?” They were not able to resist their temptation for Kayikka’s special marriage day dishes, because during those days marriage functions were not so frequent, as  they are today.   Kayikka then with his wife’s help made the tea stall a restaurant and started serving lunch as well.  Those visiting Mattanchery, could easily trace their way to the restaurant with their olfactory receptors guiding their way to the aromatic Biriyani, Liver Roast, Ghee Rice, Kerala-style rice meal, Mani Puttu (steamboiled rice rolls) and Mutton Curry. People started calling the restaurant by his name, out of love. Thus was born  ‘Kayees Rahmatullah Hotel’ or ‘Kayikka’s Hotel’.

Since then, nothing else came to his mind other than dreams of serving his cuisine to his customers.  Also came the motivation to make recipes to be passed as legacy to generations.

Dedication to delicacy

During his spare time, Kayikka used to coat his Biriyani copper vessels with tin, as he believed this could improve the flavour of his Biriyani. Kayikka had a few trade mark secrets in selecting the best lamb and goat available in the locality, to be slaughtered for the next day’s Biriyani. He never compromised on the task of buying the best locally produced spices in the market. Even when physically in the  market or home, his mind would be  experimenting recipes at Rahmatullah kitchen.

Mustafa says, “For ensuring quality and taste,  he paid attention to the minute aspects of cooking, which others would most often neglect. There is nothing magical about his recipe,  the miracle dish is the result of sheer dedication.  We are trying our level best to maintain the recipe – the exact ingredients, and the method of cooking just as our great Father did; the task as such is tough though”.

The female members at Mustafa’s home would dare to cook anything except  a Biriyani, and are basically good at vegetarian dishes;  for them it is already a lost game when they challenge the maestro’s Biriyani at home.

The ‘Kayees Rahmatullah Hotel’ at Mattanchery still maintains the traditional ambience of the age-old building. Mustafa and his son Shabeer, MBA graduate in Marketing and Advertisement work hard to preserve the reputation of Kayikka’s Biriyani, which for them symbolizes  not just the recipe, but a whole lot of moral values of cooking and serving of a good-hearted chef.

“Not that we have not inherited the culinary creativity from him; in fact our heart too beat to bring in and innovate new recipes, but it will be tough to concentrate and focus on the quality of the dish if we experiment too much and bring in more varieties, so we found it apt to preserve the great recipe of our father word by word” says Mustafa.

Mustafa used to ask a few locals – regular Biriyani customers at Mattanchery outlet – whether they were not afraid of getting cholesterol level high and obese?’  Their answer is ‘We could well exercise but can’t resist eating your Biriyani!’

Mustafa too started helping out his father at Kayees when he was just nine and imbibed the spirit of serving the moral values of cooking and making people feel that their mind is filled as well as  their stomach. Immense care is taken right from selecting the small pieces of fire wood used as fuel, the native breed of goat selected for meat, the  unadulterated locally produced spices, through the quality of rice, to ensuring service of  the 70 year old Biriyani chef Kammu and middle aged Hamza who had the fortune to learn the art from Kayikka.

The Process – and the aroma

Unlike the Malabar Biriyani,  the ingredients include finely chopped pineapple pieces to be sprinkled along with coriander leaves above each layer of rice – stacked above the flavoursome meat Masala in the bottom part of the Biriyani vessel.  When the layering of rice is done completely above the meat masala, a small bowl of pure ghee is poured all around the rice along with roasted cashew nuts and raisins and then comes the Kayees special liquid mix of coconut milk, saffron powder and finely grounded almond nuts to be sprinkled above all other ingredients.  A lid is then placed above the vessel to ‘Dum the Biriyani’ (a widely used method while cooking Biriyani, to mix up the flavours of spices and meat masala with the rice and other ingredients, and let the aroma radiate all around the vessel).

Soon after this,  burning coal is taken from hearth and placed above the lid; now the heat is reversed – as the fire is extinguished underneath, the burning coal radiates heat from top downward. There too Kayees has special techniques to ensure maximum flavour as the lid of the Biriyani vessel is packed air tight with a paste  of white flour. This ‘Dum’ process continues until the white flour gets unpacked by the steam and spicy flavours inside, and bubbles start coming out through the edges of the lid.

If anyone wonders why Kayees chefs are so fussy about  minute timings and manner of chopping and grinding – onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, green chillies and spices before starting the meat masala preparation,  it is these minutiae that make Kayees Biriyani what it is.

Though Kayees insist on continuing the traditional methods followed for ages, it is not  that  they are totally resistant to change:  they have now switched from the short grain khaima variety rice to the modern good quality long grain Basmati rice. And now their take-away packages are attractive and hygienic to match present day standards even at the Mattanchery outlet. Now they use aluminium vessels instead of the earlier copper ones, but they ensure the thickness of the lower part of the vessel is the same to take the heat.

In current times, it is tough to find native breeds of goat, at the right age for meat and so Kayees have already taken initiatives like promoting the grazing of rare local breeds. They are so good at tracing the right kind of goats for the meat, which Mustafa says is an art that others cannot  practise. Most of the spices now available in the market are imported ones and so Kayees take care to place orders in advance with local producers.  The necessary changes undertaken are thus of course part of the Kayikka dictum of ensuring quality and hygiene ignoring the profit factor.

The Ernakulum outlet,  as different from  the Mattanchery one,  serves Chinese, Continental as well as Arabian dishes and is a restaurant equipped with modern facilities, built with traditional attire and should be considered posh compared to the Mattanchery outlet. “We have insistence on cooking the Biriyani dishes in the   Mattanchery kitchen itself – even for our Kayees outlet recently started near Durbar Hall, Kochi. The Biriyani prepared at Rahmatullah Hotel is carried all the way to Kochi and served there” Says Mustafa.

Shabeer, Kayikka’s grand-son upholds another tradition of his grand father as he caters for marriage functions all across Kerala.  He successfully runs an outdoor catering service division of Kayees and has by  now catered to the marriage functions of top politicians, business personalities and media giants in Kerala; the citations sent by them registering their gratitude are hung on the walls of the Ernakulum and Mattanchery outlets – of course with a special mention that the item guests relished most was the ‘Kayees Biriyani’. Shabeer says, more than his masters degree in Business, it is the practical knowledge of running a restaurant business, inherited from his grand-father and father, which helped him out in turning successful.

Shabeer feels that, they were the ones fortunate enough to ‘harvest the grains out of those fields ploughed and cultivated’ by their great grand-father. Mustafa and Shabeer are not wary of competition, saying competition could only enhance their performance.  For years they have been revealing the Biriyani recipe before the public as they feel there is nothing magical about it other than the challenge of exactly mimicking the complete submission and devotion of Kayikka;  not surprising that none could match them in that regard; they say there is something in the genes that give taste and quality.

Mustafa is of the opinion that serving food in an appealing manner and making the whole lot of customers contended without even a complaint is indeed a mammoth task, more so when you are saddled with a reputation of a father to keep.  He says, “Catering is an area where people can make complaints baselessly, so it is important to win their hearts first. Food and anger are closely associated and so the task taken up needs careful handling”.

In a generation were people have become addict to junk food outlets of corporate giants, when everything is served in packets and bottles; chilled and preserved, when the food is losing its soul, preserving this kind of recipes and serving it to people with heart full of love, ‘Kayees’ is a sought of resistance. Kayikka will stay evergreen for generations through his recipe and those great values inherited to his grand children.

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