Ummi Abdulla on sharing long-forgotten Moplah delicacies with the world

It was the love for kaya ada — a steamed rice and banana pie — that first drew Ummi Abdulla to the kitchen. “It’s a very old, traditional Moplah dish. We were 10 siblings, and my grandmother had to use an entire bunch of bananas every time she cooked this for us. She would lock herself in the storeroom behind the kitchen to cook this delicacy, and I was the only one allowed to help her. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her mixing the bananas and rice flour with coconut jaggery, rolling the banana leaves into a cone and stuffing it with the mixture and steaming the ada. I can distinctly recall that heady smell which filled the room when they were done,” says the 80-year-old food consultant.

Seated in a secluded dining area in Ente Keralam restaurant where she is anchoring an ongoing Moplah food festival, Ummi is happy to recollect her journey so far. “My late husband was the one to encourage me. When we moved to Chennai from Kerala, I hardly knew any of the traditional dishes. We had been in a joint family so far and I knew only very basic cooking. Look at where I am now,” she says with a laugh.

I still love to experiment and create in the kitchen: I come up with at least one new dish a year

At her husband’s insistence, Ummi started to make the Moplah dishes that he loved so much. “The very first one I tried was mutton curry — my elder sister taught me her recipe. It wasn’t exactly like how she would make it, but it was close,” says Ummi. After a pause, she adds, “The result was definitely better than the first time I tried to do something in the kitchen: I heaped live coals on a papad and left it to cook for half an hour.” She was 12 at the time but still flushes pink from the memory of how everyone laughed at her for that.

Ummi has come a long way since, authoring four recipe books in Malayalam with a fifth one on the way and two recipe books in English. She has also anchored several food festivals with restaurants and hotels like the Taj group.

“Moplah food is made using a lot of coconut and coconut oil. The way it is used in every dish is what makes it different from the usual Kerala cuisine,” says Ummi. This is what she likes best about the Arab-influenced cuisine. The paththiris — flat breads made with rice flour — are an all-time favourite. They can be made thin, thick, deep-fried or mixed with meat. All of these go very well with the Malabar fish curry and Varutharacha mutton curry, which is broiled coconut gravy. The idea behind a food festival, she says, is to make sure that the diners are offered something they normally would not get to eat in their city.

“I have two daughters, and they both try out my recipes regularly. However, they prefer the easier, more contemporary dishes. No one has the time to make the intricate preparations required for the age-old recipes,” says Ummi wistfully. “I still love to experiment and create in the kitchen: I come up with at least one new dish a year. This year, it is kozhi milagu kari the Moplah way,” she says.

Ummi now lives in Calicut with her son and his wife, both of whom love her cooking. “My daughter-in- law also cooks with me,” she says with a fond smile. “I used to conduct cooking classes in Cannanore, Calicut and other cities, but now I’m a bit too old for that. Even here, I share my knowledge with the chefs and tell them what exactly is to be done,” says Ummi.

Age doesn’t seem to be slowing Ummi down. She will soon be publishing a book on how to make 50 different types of puttu, and is also authoring her third recipe book in English. “Now for cooking I need help, but writing is something I can do on my own,” she says. Later, she is off to Bangalore to recreate the Moplah magic there.

“Even if I am a bit worried, when I step into the kitchen, it’s all gone. I did not realise it then, but even when I was young, nothing gave me greater joy than to watch my grandmother and all the cooks fussing around in the kitchen. Nothing has changed in that aspect: cooking remains, and will be, my greatest hobby and passion,” says Ummi.

The Moplah food festival is on at Ente Keralam in Poes Garden till June 15.