Two culinary experts, Ummi Abdullah and Abida Rasheed, recount the memories and traditions that mark the Ramadan nombu-thura

At half past four in the evening, Abida Rasheed is just about warming up to break the Ramadan fast. Instructions to her maid Urmila fly swift, loud and clear — press the dough, whip up masalas, get unnakkai ready. Otherwise, the house is largely quiet, except when her five-year-old grandson trots in demanding more chores from the grandmother to keep himself busy.

The scene is vastly different from what Abida as a child was used to. She is now an ambassador of Moplah cuisine; a name often tapped by star hotels in metro cities when they have a Malabar food festival in mind.

During Ramadan, the focus is always on prayer and food. “Nombu-thura (breaking the fast) in my younger days was a collective affair. But we have chipped away from the joint family set-up. That style of living cannot come back,” says Abida. In effect, what has changed is the magnitude of celebrations and preparations that characterised Ramadan in the past.

According to Abida, each household has a signature nombu-thura. The flavours that make the spread are a jigsaw puzzle to one’s cultural influences. “My mother’s mom is from Thalassery, while my father’s family is from Kozhikode. The Thalassery influences have been quietly absorbed into our cuisine. The same snack will never taste the same at two places,” she says.

Nombu-thura, says Abida, is about pushing the envelope. “It takes that something extra. The Ramadan fare is very different from the normal fare at home,” she says. So preparations for it are good conversation starters. “When I meet or call someone, I would ask about nombu preparations. From pounding rice for pathiri to keeping the masala mix ready, there are tasks to be done.” Blenders and crushers may have made life easy, but the zest to cook lack fire now, she says. “For instance, if we were making ari kadukka (stuffed mussels), it was a day’s work then. By evening, there will not be an inch to spare on the table. I grew up on that kind of spread. So making and serving a few things that sit on a corner gives me no satisfaction,” says Abida. Earlier, it was common for married sisters to send nombu-thura delicacies to their brothers. “We had women who carried the food basket on their heads to the brother’s place.”

She recalls a typical nombu-thura fare. Beginning slowly with dates, juice and thari kanji (gruel) it gathers steam with a burst of snacks, a normal standard being two sweet and two spicy ones. The ubiquitous ones are unnakkai (banana-based), samosa and erachi pathiri (meat pathiri). The nombu-thura is interspersed with prayers. For the main course, one can bank on ari (rice) pathiri, ghee rice and snacks like puttu. Accompanying the main course are curries with beef, lamb or chicken. Popular are fares like stuffed chicken. The broken rice gruel with jeera is a popular concoction too. Abida agrees the fare will break a vegetarian’s heart.

The strength of every packed table was an army of helpers. “Now people just sleep off their time. Earlier, cooking and preparations started in the morning,” says Abida. Helpers, she says, are usually paid double and booked well in advance, at times even a year before. Large families had two batches of them, the second to make the early morning fare before the fast began.

Among the helpers would be cuisine specialists who assured each dish had its trademark flavour. The toughest part was to get the curled borders of stuffed pathiri right. One who got it perfect and small could well be a talented chef.

“In our house, the wafer-thin pathiri was made by Kannettan for almost 57 years. But he is not keeping well,” says Abida. Labour crunch and slow waning of the skilled generation of helpers is also shrinking the home-made nombu-thura fare.

Abida says “fresh” was synonymous with nombu-thura. “If fast was to be broken at 6.40 p.m., at 6. 35 there would be a kadai on the stove to fry something. Thari kanji is made on the spot, otherwise the main ingredient – rava thickens.” Samosa had its secrets too. “The wrap is rolled out and pan roasted before being stuffed. That enhances crispiness.”

She admits nombu-thura in the past was about eating with a vengeance. “People would be particularly fussy.” But youngsters are well-aware of health issues, she says. “They are much more educated about the religion and the Ramadan month. They see it as a time to detoxify the body. The fetish for the fried has lessened. At home, I now make one sweet and one spicy snack and supper. Meats are increasingly replaced by fish.”

Abida knows Ramadan in the past celebrated excesses. But, food for her is tradition, one that has to be learned and followed to let it live.

Eighty-year-old Ummi Abdullah takes her reputation as a culinary expert seriously. For our benefit, she meticulously makes stuffed bread, a nombu-thura delicacy. She carves out a hole on the side of the bread, scoops its inside clean and stuffs it with meat. She seals the bread, rolls it in egg and shallow fries it. “It is a chore to get uncut bread now. In our younger days, it was in plenty and much smaller in size which makes filling it easy,” says Ummi.

Ummi is the author of six cook books, a few in Malayalam, others in English, some dedicated to Moplah cuisine. She still travels when the restaurant chain she is associated with holds Moplah food fests. Ummi’s earliest memories of Ramadan nombu-thura is linked to growing up in Thikkodi, in the outskirts of Kozhikode. “We were a joint family, and my mom had 10 children. All my mother did was run after them. In fact, I never saw her cook. It was my grandmother who did the cooking,” says Ummi.

In her childhood, Ummi says, kids below the age of 10 never undertook fast. “I distinctly remember my mother giving us a shower and then making us all sit in a line on the wooden plank and serving us food cooked for the nombu-thura by around four in the evening, before the elders broke the fast,” says Ummi. She remembers well the stock dishes — unnakkai, kozhi ada (chicken parcels), ooral (wheat-based porridge), small vadas which her grandmother called bhajiya, ari pathiri and assorted gravy with beef, lamb and chicken. She says tapioca and fish too made it to the table along with the main course. “The flavour of that curry has not left me even now. I can never recreate that taste whatever I do,” says Ummi.

Action, she says, would begin by 12 noon. “There would be so much grinding and crushing to do. The woman who would be crushing rice would be doing so the whole day.”

Ummi distinctly recalls “kol kodutaikka” the practice of sending nombu-thura delicacies to the families to which daughters and sons have married into. “If food is sent in the first 10 days of Ramadan, it would be snacks like unnakkai and samosa. If sent in the next 10 days, it would be pathiri and curry and in the last 10 days one would send biryani,” says Ummi.

As she got married and moved to Chennai and lived there for close to 40 years, Ummi says, nombu-thura too went a change. The tradition was not very popular in Chennai then and mostly translated to a time to entertain guests with traditional dishes. She shifted base to Kozhikode a decade ago and since then nombu-thura is a significant part of her social calendar. “Earlier, I used to take catering orders during Ramadan. But haven’t taken many this year,” she says. Ramadan cooking has been gently tweaked to suit changing times, says Ummi. There is still expert help to be found she says. “It is just that now she comes one day and cooks what ever you want the whole day — samosa, cutlet or unnakkai— and keeps it in the freezer. We take out what we need every day,” says Ummi who has only her son and daughter-in-law with her during the Ramadan.