Ummi Abdulla is known as the ‘matriarch’ of Malabar Muslim food. She tells us about building a legacy that her own granddaughter is now taking forward
Ummi Abdulla - the woman giving Mappila cuisine to the world
Some days, Ummi Abdulla can’t wait to get to the kitchen in the morning. It’s when she wakes up with a food dream. “I often dream of the entire process of cooking a dish, complete with each ingredient,” she says. And once the recipe is tried in her kitchen in Calicut, she neatly jots it down in her diary. One such diary of Abdulla’s handwritten recipes, called, Cooking In My Dreams, is being given away with the purchase of the author’s latest coffee table book, A Kitchen Full Of Recipes.
Available for pre-order on Abdulla’s website, Ummi’s Corner, the 198-page, hardbound, glossy, illustrated tome carries photos and methodology of cooking 103 recipes of Malabar Muslim cuisine, or Mappila food from north Kerala, a south Indian state.It is Abdulla’s seventh book – co-authored with her granddaughter, Nazaneen Jalaludheen – and her third in English. The rest are written in Malayalam, her mother tongue. When her first book, Malabar Muslim Cookery, was published in 1981, the food was barely known outside her community. Abdulla became a pioneer in getting the recipes out into the world, and is sometimes referred to as the matriarch of Mappila cuisine.
As a little girl in her home in Thikkodi village in Kerala, Abdulla, now 84, loved playing with her nine siblings, but always found time to peek into the kitchen presided over by her grandmother. “I loved watching her cook, and took in all the details,” she says. And perhaps surprisingly, for a woman who has run a pickling unit, catered for parties, written seven books and many articles for magazines, and acted as a consultant to 5-star hotels in India and abroad, Abdulla started cooking at around the age of 40. “I always had cooks,” she says. It was at the persuasion of her husband, who was a foodie, that Abdulla’s journey as an expert Mappila cook began. A lawyer, writer and a general manager at a publishing house in Chennai, Abdulla’s husband was a strong proponent of women’s rights. “He encouraged me to go out of the house and do everything I liked,” Abdulla says. Back in the 1970s, Abdulla attended a cooking school, supplied the best homemade pickles, squashes and cocktail onions to hotels, and ran a catering business, which, she admits, could not have been possible without his backing.
Her first book was written at his behest. “It was difficult for me to put the recipes in my head on to paper,” she recalls. “I spent a few weeks with my grandmother, prepared all recipes, wrote down measurements in fistfuls, and later converted them to grams,” she says.
Now Abdulla’s granddaughter is taking her legacy forward with A Kitchen Full of Recipes, which is ready to be shipped internationally from the last week of April. An information technology consultant in Bangalore, Jalaludheen lived with her grandmother during her school and college days and shares a close bond with her. Of the innumerable stories she has heard from her, she wanted to document at least a few. “Mamamma’s (grandma’s) first book had a lot of good recipes, but with the new book, I wanted to bring a little bit of Ummi into those recipes,” she says. Therefore – just like Abdulla did with her grandma – Jalaludheen spent months trying each of her Mamamma’s recipes, doing photo shoots and getting the self-published book illustrated.
“Every recipe has a story about her childhood,” she says. For instance, in Abdulla’s village, since fresh rice was collected from the granaries after being freshly husked and pounded every day, lunch was served only by 2.30pm or 3pm. Similarly, boats carrying fish came to the shore only by 2pm, and sold thereafter. So a staple lunch of fish curry and rice couldn’t be served sooner. The illustrations in the book give a sense of these activities in a coastal southern Indian village.
Carefully penned recipes of Unnakkayi (a plantain sweet), Meen Pathiri, (steamed rice pancakes stuffed with fish) and Mutta Mala (a dessert made from egg yolk), give a glimpse of the sumptuous Mappila food with its Dutch, Portuguese and particularly strong Arab influences. “The Mappila biryani is made with short grain kaima rice, which is softer and enhances the flavour of meat,” says Babu Abdullah, executive chef at The Gateway Hotel, Calicut, who has written a research paper on religious influences on Mappila cuisine. He says Middle Eastern biryanis, too, have a predominant flavour of meat and aren’t too spicy.
In the seventh century and later, the Arabs traded spices, textiles and precious stones with Kerala. As they mingled, there was a sharing
of culture, and marriages with the locals followed.
The layers in the Malabar parotta (a layered flaky flatbread) mimic the Middle Eastern filo pastry, and the Kahwa and the Sulaimani chai, an integral part of the Mappila cuisine are Arabic drinks, says Chef Abdullah.
Alissa, a porridge made with meat or chicken, wheat, ghee and sugar, is a direct derivative of Harisa cooked in Yemen and so is Mandi, a close relative of biryani.
Abdulla chips in. “You will always find a date pickle and chutney on my dining table,” she says, adding that the use of dates is an important Arab influence. Of course, she makes them herself.
Age hasn’t slowed down Abdulla. Most days she can still be found in the kitchen tinkering with ingredients. “Whenever something is worrying me, I cook a delicious meal and serve it to my family, and then I’m not so troubled anymore,”
Unnakkayi (Banana pods)
2 half ripe, firm Kerala or Nendran bananas
1 cup coconut, 4tbsp sugar, 1tbsp raisins, 1tbsp chopped cashew nuts, 1tsp ghee, ½tsp cardamom powder, oil for frying, salt to taste.
Cut bananas horizontally, along with the peel, into three to four pieces. Cook in boiling water till peel separates slightly. Alternatively, steam it for a couple of minutes. Remove peel and grind banana to a smooth paste without adding water.
For the stuffing:
Add sugar to two tablespoons of warm water and stir till sugar melts. Stir the coconut in. Add the ghee, chopped cashew, raisins and cardamom powder. Stir well and remove from the stove.
For the preparation
Oil your palm lightly. Take small lemon-sized balls of the ground banana and flatten them in your palm. Put two teaspoons of the coconut mixture in it. Fold the edges and press lightly. Now roll it with both your hands, to get a cylindrical shape pointed on both ends. Repeat for the remaining banana dough.
Deep fry the banana buds to golden brown. This high-calorie snack tastes best when eaten hot.