Abida & The Art of Moplah cuisine
Last year, sometime around August, I had the privilege of meeting an extraordinary home chef turned celebrity, Begum Abida Rasheed from Calicut, acknowledged in the food world to be the ambassador of Moplah or Mappilah cuisine. Moplah cuisine is largely found in northern Kerala, on the Malabar coast and represents an unique union of distinct cultures, such as Arabic, Malayalee and Portugese. The Arab traders who operated on the coast married into local families and the fusion carried on into local cuisine.
Abida had curated a Moplah food promotion at Aish, the Hyderabadi speciality restaurant of The Park, Hyderabad and I had found the dining experience hugely enriching. So, when I was invited recently by Chef Mandaar Sukhtankar, the man responsible for bringing down Abida here for the second time, I was all enthusiasm.
Just like last time, Abida came across as a warm, affectionate and extremely straightforward person, who does not believe in external trappings, such as cutlery. “Please eat with your fingers, ” she exhorts. “our Koran advocates eating with the fingers because that is how not just food is best enjoyed, but because of the secretions created, it is better digested too.” Check! She continues, “Moplah or Mappila food is subtle and light, doesnt derive its flavours too much from spices, even while using them.”
We are first served Pacha Manga, a fresh raw mango drink with a hint of rock salt and green chilli, simple and sublime! Starters arrive in the form of Meen (fish) and Kozhi (chicken) Porichattu (fry), Vada with Thenga Manga chutney and Nulli Itathu (onion bhajjis). The seer fish fry is perfect, crisp and fresh, with a perfect spice marinade of ginger, garlic, red chilli powder and pepper.
Vada with Thenga Manga chutney were innovatively made like vada popcorn paired with coconut-raw mango chutney.
For main courses, there was the classic Puttu (rice flour baked delights) paired with Kadala or black chana curry, Kerala style. Next up on a thali were Chemeen Mulaku curry (delicious is an understatement, prawns ). Mutton ‘Ishtew’ (redolent with aromatic spices and ginger in a coconut milk gravy), Kozhi Nirachatu, and there is Avial and Mapila dal as well.
Though my tummy is protesting, I try a bit of Mutton Biryani and it is in one word, a show-stopper. A bit on the moist side and not greasy at all, the rice used is the typical short-grained khaima rice, instead of basmati.
Desserts time and its Mutta Mala (Necklace of Eggs) again, (I had this last time too) made of only two ingredients, eggs and sugar. Egg yolk is made into yellow noodles and the egg whites are baked with sugar syrup and scented with cardamom to make the rest of the sweet, which is an Eid special. The best aspect of the dessert, I felt again, was that it was light and there was no smell of eggs!
Our meal completed and thanks extended to Abida, I learn from her that one of her daughters is into cooking and is specialising in desserts in Bengaluru and is helping her mpther set up her website, which would share recipes. “I must be one of the first Moplah family to have shared recipes with the public, they are usually handed down generations in the strictest codes of secrecy,” laughs Abida. I come back with an experience which still feels novel, despite having gone through it last year.