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The fine art of cooking

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Sweet tooth: Ummi Abdulla preparing her special low-fat sweets.
Sweet tooth: Ummi Abdulla preparing her special low-fat sweets.

Ummi Abdulla fits the bill as a ‘doyenne’ of Malabar Muslim cookery, having popularised the unique cuisine far and wide.

“Honing cooking into a fine art has been my life’s avocation,” she muses.

In a chat recently one evening at her home in Kozhikode, she explains the reasons for the sense of satisfaction the culinary craft has provided her.

“At a Moplah Food Festival in Bangalore recently, a regular user of my cookbook rang up the organisers on hearing that I was in town. She had bought my book Malabar Muslim Cookery a decade back and wanted it autographed. This is only an instance of the appreciation I have received to my recipe books that include The Epicure Cookbook.”

“On another occasion, my husband sent my cookbook, free, to an aspiring caterer who did not have the money to buy it. The step turned out to be a blessing for the person.”

At 70, she is as enthusiastic as a young housewife explaining the nuances of the culinary skills that earned her name and fame.

She is flattered that users of her cookery books - both the novice and the master chef - find them highly instructive and educative.

“More than all, I attach a therapeutic value to cooking, besides the sense of satisfaction it provided especially after the death of my husband. I keep my mind busy thinking out novel recipes that can also be good from the health point of view - low calorie for instance given the modern lifestyle.”

She is planning a vegetarian cookbook.

Ummi was honoured by the ladies wing of the Muslim Educational Society at Chennai recently, where actor Jayaram presented her a memento and citation for her contribution in earning a place for Malabar Muslim cookery among world cuisines.

Improvisations

She has improvised on the culinary traditions of Malabar Muslims traced to the elaborate practice of laying out fabulous feasts of mouth-watering delicacies - mutton stew, fish mollee, ‘appams’, ‘puttu’, ‘ari kadukka’, ‘biriyani’, ‘mutta mala’ - for the ‘Mappila’ (bridegroom). The bridegrooms include Arab traders who married women from Malabar and settled here.

Her improvisations include the bleached and pickled onions popular along with a fragment of cheese, pineapple or candied cherry as a cocktail accompaniment.

After marriage, Ummi settled down to putting her heart and soul to mastering the cookery skills. Her husband V. Abdulla, who worked for Orient Longman, was a great entertainer and this provided her opportunity to experiment and improvise on the traditional recipes she had seen her grandmother churn out.

“Ummumma’s (grandma) style was just throwing in a handful of this (masala) and that (desiccated coconut) to turn out a delicious dish. I took pains instead to measure out the exact quantity of each ingredient. This helped me to bring out the cookery books in detail.”

By enrolling at the Chennai Institute of Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition and enlisting in a number of cooking, baking and food preservation classes, her culinary prowess improved. Soon she started a pickling unit and organised cookery classes.

She participated in innumerable cookery contests and walked away with the prize and was invited as judge to cookery shows and contests, she remembers.

Maleeha Raghaviah

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