Go to any corner of north Kerala during the holy month of Ramzan and the air will be thick with the mouthwatering aroma of Malabar spices, ghee and coconut oil. From lip-smacking tidbits to an array of main course picks such as the Thalassery biryani, it's a full platter every day for iftaar.
A group of youngsters in Mouval, a sleepy village in Kasarkkode, is busy preparing the dough for their special samosa. Every year, around this time, these NRIs flock to their hometown with the express aim of making and selling Mouval samosas - one of the popular items on the snack platter of those who have been fasting all day. The group makes between 60,000 to a lakh samosas every day and caters to at least three districts in north Kerala. During the rest of the year, they are employed at a major F&B company in the Middle East. "Our fillings are different," says Mauval Ibrahim, a member of the group, without divulging what it is exactly that makes their snack so tempting.Kerala's Malabar region is known for many such ethnic Moplah (or Mappila - the local term for Muslims in the state) dishes. From unnakkaya to kozhi Ada, about 200 Moplah delicacies that are savoured especially during Ramzan. Many non-Muslims too visit Kozhikode and Thalassery, the two main hubs of Malabari cuisine, to savour Moplah food during Ramzan.
(Clockwise from the left) Young women of the community put finishing touches to a platter of Moplah specialities. A plate of Mouval samosas. Varieties of Kozhikode Halwa. (HT Photo/ K Sasi)
"We never use anything artificial to enhance the flavour of our dishes, but allow the natural flavours of the ingredients to come out," says celebrity Moplah chef Abida Rasheed, who had once held a live breakfast show comprising 72 Malabari items. Often called the ambassador of Moplah cuisine, she always travels with her cooking vessels such as the uruli (brass cooking pot) and cheena chetty (frying pan) when she conducts food fests. Now her youngest daughter Nafisa Rasheed (22), a communication graduate, is set to make her mark in this domain.
Moplah food was influenced by the food habits of Arab traders who, centuries ago, came to the Malabar region in search of spices. It also draws inspiration from the cuisines of later trading groups like the Portuguese and the Dutch. "The perfect blend of several cultures led to the creation of a cuisine that uses local ingredients with techniques and concepts borrowed from faraway lands," says gourmet writer Aysha Tanya, who is from Thalassery.
Malabar's exotic spices lured many, including the Chinese, the French and finally, the British. The proof as they say is in the pudding or the alisa, a delicious porridge made of wheat, chicken pieces, grated onion and coconut, that originated in Yemen. Another dish, the mutta mala, made of egg yolk and sugar syrup, is similar to the Portuguese fios de ovos. Kozhikode, where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, is also famous for its different varieties of halwas. Besides fruit-based and vegetable platters, Moplah cuisine includes a variety of mutton, fish and shell fish dishes. Thalassery dum biryani tops the list of main course picks."Like the warmth of the people, Malabar cuisine tickles the palette of food lovers," says Oscar-winning sound artist Resul Pookutty, who is from south Kerala. He points out that while most of the dishes "maintain their ethnicity", south Kerala's iftaar dishes are quite different from those served in Malabar. But whatever the variations, Mouval samosas are a hit everywhere.