October 20, 2012 By AP Kunhamu

Mappilas of Malabar – A Kitchen Community

lemieux33250_06LThere is no more sincere love than the love of food – thus observed George Bernard Shaw and one finds it very difficult to disprove the Shavian observation, if one has tasted any of the delicacies that Mappila cuisine of North Malabar offers. Muslims of North Kerala are generally called as Mappillas or Moplahs. Many of them are descendants of Arab traders who married Kerala women. Later this community expanded their ranks by conversion and new converts mainly settled at eastern interiors whereas the direct descendants remained at coastal places.

Community of Muslim traders who live on the western coast is socially and culturally different from the agricultural folk of inlands. This cultural difference is reflected in their food habits. Muslim cuisine of Malabar, well-known by the cuisine dexterity of the Muslims of north Kerala, especially in Tellichery, Kannur, Kozhikode etc, is a special entity. However, it would be hasty generalization to include all Malabar Muslims in one net, with regard to food culture. The greatest contribution of Islam to the Indian continent is in culinary art, I suppose. Muslim impact on North India started with numerous attacks by Arab/Afgan invaders like Mohamed Gasnavi, Mahmood Ghori and Qutbuddin Aibek etc.

The Mogul dynasty was set up in Delhi by Babar and Muslim rule throughout North India had prevailed with its splendour for two centuries. In South India Arab traders were frequent visitors even before the advent of Islam. After coming of Islam, local people were converted in large scale. In other regions of the subcontinents also, conversion was notable along the route of invaders in the northwest and in the east-from Hyderabad to UP and elsewhere. Muslims blended their food habits with those of indigenous people and a new food culture emerged with its richness and variety.

Muslim influence refined the hitherto primitive Indian cooking style and dietary habits. Mogul rule produced many tasty food varieties, using ingredients like meat, ghee, sugar and maida. Kabab, Pulao, Nan, Roti, Kurma, Kulcha, Thandoor, Paratha, Biriyani etc are examples. In Muslim diet throught India, this influence is visible. Everywhere its basic character is always the same. As far as Muslims are concerned dietary injunctions both derived from Quran and sunnah determine their food. Swine flesh is prohibited, but sea food is permitted with some exceptions.

It is mandatory to utter the name of god when one cuts the jugular vein of any animal before making food using it. This differentiates Halal from Haram. Alcohol is prohibited. Islam instructs that no food be wasted. It stresses on Zakath, the necessity to share food with others. Fasting is a compulsory ritual, which is related to eating. All these factors indicate that food is also of prime importance to believers in Islam. In view of this attributed importance, food culture of Malabar Muslims cannot be separated from its religious connotations.

Muslim’s food basket consists only of permissible items. Use of meat, egg, ghee and sugar/jaggery is common. Thanks to Islamic influence, Muslims treat dates as the best diet. As a rule, they sit together to take food. Many of Muslim dishes are suited for community kitchen, in this sense. Pathiri is a special dish of Mappillas. It is a flat thin rice chapati made from boiled mash of rice. Arippathiri, or Orotti is a thicker version made from parboiled rice flattened out on a cloth or banana leaf. Neyppathiri is another one. There is a saying in Malayalam that Pathiri is of ten varities (Pathiri pathu Vidham), such as meen pathiri, moolappathiri, kunhippathiri, veesippathiri, ottappathiri etc. Pathiri is eaten at breakfast or lunch with mutton or chicken curry.

Biriyani and Neychoru (Ghee rice) are common food among mappillas. Steamed rice cakes (Puttu), eaten with small bananas or curries also figure at the morning repast. Neychoru is rice fried lightly in ghee with onions, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom and finally boiled to a finish. A wedding dinner without Neychoru or Biriyani is unimaginable. Mappillas have many sweet delicacies also. Many of their dishes are made from rice and wheat with added coconut, coconut milk, spices, sugar, egg and dry fruits. Muttamala (Egg Garland) the chain like strings of egg yolk cooked in sugar syrup is a distinctive sweet. It is served with Mutta Surka, a snowlike pudding made from separated egg white, cut into pieces.

Aleesa is whole wheat porridge with minced mutton/chicken cooked in ghee. Sweet dishes are many in number such as Ilayada, Vazhakkayada, Kozhi Ada, Polla, Tharippolla, Kilsa, Mutta marichathu, Unnakkaya, Chattippathiri, Meen Pathiri, Irachippathiri- all of which only Mappillas claim as their own. Egg, sugar, ghee and meat are main ingredients used in Mappilla cuisine. Inland Muslims, with their impoverished lifestyle for years cannot claim this cultural flavour, but of late newly acquired affluence allow them to follow suit. Nowadays, thanks to cultural exchanges and market initiatives, traditional muslim flavour has entered into kitchens of other religious communities also and presently muslim recipe is so popular in Kerala, at large.

Muslim kitchens prepare special dishes during the month of Ramzan. There are special dishes, to mark certain festive occasions (Kritha is one, prepared in connection with first pregnancy among Koyas of Calicut) Muslim modus operandi of pickle making, using vinegar is at variance with the traditional way of kerala. As such, traditional Malayalam food is not so familiar with Mappillas, who happen to be unique in food habits. Actual food of the community has a strong Islamic connotation and one cannot separate the essential religious content from its flavour.

image courtesy: http://www.cnewa.us

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