Mohammed Hanif is a busy man. In a couple of hours time he has to serve special Nombu kanji (a form of gruel) to hungry devotees at the Palayam Juma Masjid as they gather to break the day’s fasting. “The month of Ramzan is the busiest time of the year for me. My day begins at 6 a.m.,” says the septuagenarian freelance cook, giving the huge vat of kanji, which is merrily boiling away on a wood fire kiln, a few stirrings with a long brass ladle. Right beside the vessel is another vat of cooked kanji ready to be served. “Every day during the Holy Month, the Masjid’s kitchen serves around 70 litres of kanji free of cost to the faithful. This is enough to feed 600 people. I have been responsible for cooking the kanji for the past 30 years. I took over the job from my brother Shamsudeen,” says the reticent Mohammed, after much prodding.
Nombu kanji seems rather different from the run-of-mill watery rice gruel that is a staple in many households in the State. For one, nombu kanji is yellow in colour and has more of a porridge-like consistency. “Unlike ordinary kanji, there are more than 25 ingredients that go into Nombu kanji,” says Mohammed. He rattles off a list of ingredients. “Apart from rice there is tomato, pineapple, coriander leaves, mint leaves, onion, shallots, garlic, coconut, and ghee, besides spices and condiments such as turmeric, pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek, cumin, fennel, star anise, mustard, and so on. The kanji is slow cooked on wooden fire to bring out the flavours of each ingredient. It’s filling, nutritious, and a meal in itself,” says Mohammed, almost perfunctorily, as he rushes around to get everything ready for the dinner buffet that will be served in the adjoining community hall.
Usually only kanji is served for Iftar (breaking the fast) at the Masjid. Today though, a well-wisher has sponsored a sumptuous Iftar feast for fellow devotees and there’s neychoru (ghee rice) and chicken curry on the menu too. Even as he gives the kanji its final few stirrings, Mohammed’s only son, Nassar, who works as his assistant, is busy sautéing diced onions and garam masala in a huge uruli. Mohammed comes across to take a sniff at the tantalising aroma and then tosses a whole bucketful of chilli paste (“the measurements are by instinct”) into the mixture, instructing Nasser to put some more effort into the stirring. Soon 100 kg of diced chicken will be added to the mixture. “Vappa’s speciality is actually mutton biriyani,” says 30-year-old Nassar, as Mohammed flashes one of his rare smiles. “As a young child I picked up the trade working as an apprentice to renowned cooks of the time. I cook all manner of ethnic vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes,” explains Mohammed.
When he’s not occupied in the Masjid’s kitchen, Mohammed spends the rest of the year cooking for Muslim weddings and special occasions. He lives in Vattiyoorkavu with his wife, his son and his three daughters. So does he cook at home too? “My wife and daughters would never let me...They all are equally good cooks.”
(A weekly column on the men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)