TREND SHILPA NAIR ANAND and ANASUYA MENON find a rising popularity of Thalassery cuisine in the city
“One plate kozhikaal (chicken leg), please.” A customer places an order. The dish soon arrives, aromatic and gorgeously golden-brown. The customer eagerly bites into it and disappointment flashes across his face. He waves for the waiter and asks, half yelling, “Where is the chicken in this?” The staff at Kitchen Tellicherry in Panampilly Nagar, suppress their giggles, for kozhikaal is a “pure vegetarian” snack, which is one of Thalassery’s staple 4 o’clock bites. “We explain to the customer that it is just tapioca shaped like a chicken leg and he enjoys the dish,” says Rajeevan P., owner of the restaurant serving authentic Thalassery food.
On Kochi’s food map, Thalassery is the buzzword now. Restaurants and hotels have sprung up boasting ‘original’ food from the district. Though north Malabari biriyanis have always maintained a dedicated fan base all over the State, a special fancy for Thalassery food seems to have caught on. “People love the biriyani, but now, there is a huge demand for snacks, too,” says Rajeevan, who opened his restaurant about six months ago.
Thalassery takes pride in its rich cuisine, shaped through the years by a delicious mingling of Malabari, French and Arabian influences. Ojeen, which has been dishing out traditional Thalassery food in Kochi for the last four years has 25 to 30 snacks on its menu, a majority of which are sold out by 2.30 p.m. Sometimes specials that are not on the menu are also served, informs Shameer T., partner, Ojeen. He has brought cooks from Thalassery, a team of 13, who are “experts”.
“For a while, we stopped serving kaipola because the specialist had left to Thalassery to attend a wedding,” Shameer adds. The kaipola (a sweet, fried dish made of banana, eggs and dried fruit), kilikkoodu (a fried snack made of chicken covered with crispy semia and stuffed with quail egg, shaped like a bird’s nest), arikadukka (mussel fried in rice batter), money bag (spicy chicken and egg dish shaped as a purse), muttamala (an elaborate egg dish), tharipola (made of rava and egg), unnakkaya (fried snack made of banana with coconut and sugar filling) are just some of the short-eats that it serves. Kallumakkai (mussels) and broken wheat are brought in from Thalassery. The only mussels available in Kochi are farmed here and do not have the flavour of the natural ones procured from the sea.
Both Rajeevan and Shameer believe that the reason for the popularity of Thalassery cuisine is perhaps its “no-artificial flavour policy”. Everything is cooked in coconut oil, except the biriyani, which has practically no oil. Priya K. Nair, assistant professor at St. Teresa’s College, Kochi, says the touch of Thalassery is easily identifiable. “The flavour is distinct. Even when in Dubai, I could spot a Thalassery cook,” she says. “The people of Thalassery love their food. It is always a conversation starter and they take such pleasure in serving food, too,” adds Priya.
For some, it is the novelty of Thalassery cuisine that draws them to it. Diljith M. Das, an art director and a regular at Ojeen, says that seeing or rather looking at and choosing what he wants to eat adds to the experience.
“If I am passing by I drop in and eat. I like to look at the food and then pick. It ends up being a visual experience. Much better than just having the menu to go by. Usually it is snacks but I like the biriyani too.” Muttamala and pazhamnirachathu are among his favourites. Muttamala has few takers as most people consider it an acquired taste because of its overpowering ‘eggy’ taste. “Yes it has that and I like that.” He says he is on a mission to sample everything that is part of Thalassery cuisine and is available here. The cuisine is predominantly non-vegetarian with limited options for the vegetarians.
David Ittycheria, a foodie, however, is of the opinion that the snacks, more than 50 types the cuisine boasts of, are the attraction. If one is looking for a ‘proper meal’ then there is nothing that draws him. “Their biriyani, from what I have eaten here, uses small-grained rice varieties like jeerakashala. For those of us from Central Kerala used to biriyani made from long grained rice it just does not match up,” he says. The chicken biriyani called chicken kabsa, has supposedly Arabic origins. “It is different from what is available here. The way it is put together and the masala is different,” says Ashraf Ifthar of Ifthar at Edappally Toll.
He says that although snacks dominate the menu in most ‘Malabar’ food joints, there is food beside snacks. “Ari dosa, orotti pathiri…these are things that are made in homes there.” The menu has evening specials such as muthari kaachiyathu, which is a filling and healthy porridge of sorts made using ragi. Ashraf was one of the partners of Ojeen.
There are different aspects to food from Thalasserry. It is the State’s baking hub. Most bakeries worth their name trace their lineage to the place. And for the same reason there are plenty of cakes and bread-based eats. Pazham cake, bun nirachathu, rotti vaatiyathu are just a few.
“Most of our customers are locals. The popular favourites here are kilikoodu, kaipola, bread pola, rotti, kalam pathiri and chatti pathiri. Kallumekai, too, is extremely popular.” An indicator to the popularity of the cuisine is another Thalaserry specialty eatery has opened next door to Ifthar.