Exploring Mappila cuisine with Ummi Abdulla and her favourite kayada

In conversation with veteran chef Ummi Abdullah on the stories and flavours influencing her signature dishes that drive the preservation of the Mappila culinary tradition

November 02, 2023 05:56 pm | Updated November 08, 2023 12:38 pm IST

Ummi Abdulla

Ummi Abdulla | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

The matriarch of Mapilla cuisine, Ummi Abdullah recently presented a curation of her signature dishes at Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Nungambakkam. At 89, she travels accompanied by her grandson and his wife, ensuring that the guests get to enjoy the same flavours she grew up eating. “The banana used to make kayada is of a certain variety. In Chennai it is poovan pazham and in Malabar it is called Mysore pazham. When we had our taste tests, I told Regi (Mathews) that I won’t settle for anything else. Today it was perfect,” she exclaims. 

The kayada is a humble sweet made with bananas, rice flour, jaggery powder, and grated coconut. These ingredients are mixed into a batter and poured into cones made with banana leaves. These parcels are then steamed until they are cooked.

Kayada

Kayada | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

Even today, the mention of kayada takes her back to her grandmother’s kitchen in Thikkodi, Kozhikode. “She would hide the kayada from everyone because she believed that if we cast eyes on it, the sweet would get spoiled. But I was so intrigued. I would go in with the pretense of peeling the bananas and watch her,” says Abdullah. “They taste even better when eaten the next day,” she suggests.

In Mappila cuisine, banana, eggs, meat and seafood are extensively used. The dishes are influenced by Arabic, Persian and Malabar flavors. “I learnt most of the dishes by watching my grandmother and other relatives but never realised where these flavours are from. Apparently muttamala, the eggy chain dish is of Portuguese origin,” she clarifies.

Abdulla believes that the quality of the ingredients play a major role in making any dish taste good. “This cuisine was created based on how flavours from different parts came together along the Malabar coast. So it can be replicated only with the right ingredients. The arikadukka, a fried mussels dish stuffed with rice dough, coconut and chilli is made with special kallumakkaya or green mussels we get from the sea. The meat is easy to remove from the shell and that is an important component in a dish,” she shares

Chattipathri

Chattipathri | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

With dishes like chattipathri, a rice and egg based dessert, kozhi nirachadhu, a spicy roasted chicken showered with fried onions and cashews or chemmeen varattiyadhu, prawn stirfy in a tamarind sauce, Abdulla has been showcasing the flavours of Mappila cuisine to the world wrapped in stories of growing up in Thikkodi “This is a story I have told often. When I was a girl, I didn’t know how to cook at all. Once when I was unwell, I went to my mother and asked for a roasted papad to share with my pzhankanji. She asked me to make it by myself. I promptly went to the stove, took the papadam, placed it on the stove and placed a few live coals on it. When I went out, I was asked about it and became a laughing stock,” she recounts. 

But her husband was the reason behind pursuing a career in cooking. “The first time I cooked was after marriage — I must have been in my 40s. My sister gave me the recipe to make eraichi aanam (a popular mutton broth in Mappila cuisine). It came out well.” she says. “He would ask me to cook something new daily, would even bring his friends over. Then I went on to learn pickling and baking. He would ask me to sell the dishes I made. One day, he asked me to write a cookbook and I didnt think I would be able to do it,” she adds. What followed was a series of trials and experiments with her grandmother. “The biggest challenge was measurements. Everything was measured by the hand and the taste would have mild differences. I would convert it to grams, try again a few times before finalising”.

Kozhi Nirachadhu

Kozhi Nirachadhu | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

Six cookbooks, a catering business, a pickling unit and over 40 years later, Abdulla still likes to learn and innovate. “I have the responsibility to make sure this Mappila cuisine lives on. The most important step is to translate the food and flavours for the next generation. Earlier we would just serve kozhi nirachadhu as a simple roast. Now we need fried onions and cashew as a garnish because I understand today everyone eats with their eyes first. But the taste cannot be compromised. And just like how I learnt this from my grandmother, my granddaughter too shares this interest with me. This gives me hope,” she says. 

Kozhi nirachathu is one of the many dishes that have been added to Kappa Chakka Kandhari’s new ala carte menu. “Our guests enjoyed a lot of these dishes during the festival and we have retained almost 60% of them,” says chef Regi Mathew. With chemmeen varattiyadhu, an array of Pathris, a rice-based bread, prawn mango curry, moringa leaf curry and more, try the flavours of Mapilla cuisine through Ummi Abdulla’s recipes.

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