At half past 12 in the noon, Abdullah Ali al-Haddar taps the metal lid of the “underground stove” and, with the help of an assistant, prises it open with a crowbar. A blast of trapped steam wafts up, filling the air with flavours at Thaqwa restaurant, Enchakkal. The chef from Yemen pauses for the steam to settle down, before pulling out a tray holding chunks of well-cooked chicken dripping with fat. At the bottom of the ‘kuzhi’, or charcoal pit, is a large vessel of spiced rice. “That’s the mandi rice,” Abdullah says in Arabic, duly translated by his employer.
Originally a Yemeni rice and meat dish, mandi has become much sought-after among gourmands in the city, with many restaurants offering the Arabian delight. It’s more popularly known in Kerala as ‘kuzhimanthi’ owing to its traditional preparation style in a charcoal-fuelled, cylindrical underground pit that doubles up as a “pressure cooker.”
Restaurateur Muhammad Shakeer of Thaqwa says he roped in Abdullah, who was working in Dubai, to lend a touch of authenticity to the Arabian dishes at his outlet. “I have had kuzhimanthi before. It made its entry into Kerala in Malabar. I introduced the dish at my outlet a year ago. Though I was a bit sceptical as to how well it would click with customers, it became a big hit,” says Shakeer. Abdullah points out that he has tweaked his masala slightly to suit a Malayali palate that likes a bit of spice. “In Yemen, black pepper is not used in mandi, but we add a bit of it as it’s unavoidable,” says Abdullah.
Prasanth Shetty, corporate chef of Olive group of restaurants, says in the traditional method, rice and meat are kept in the pit for over four hours when the juice from the hot meat is allowed to drip and flavour the rice, which is mixed well before being served. The container is hermetically sealed, while an added layer of maida dough is sometimes applied to prevent any steam from escaping. Long varieties of rice, commonly Basmati, is used for the dish, while dried lemons are added for its distinctive flavour.
Olive’s outlet at Kowdiar has three varieties of mandi – Lebanese style that comes in chicken and mutton; Iranian, in which the chicken is grilled, and Aneeth mandi, a mutton mandi prepared in Yemeni style. “Texture-wise, it is a drier variety,” says Shahid Jamshed, chairman of the Olive group.
The mandi’s older cousin, biriyani, has been around for centuries, and hence the Yemeni dish has a novelty factor, says Maheen A, co-owner of Alif Mandi House near Technopark.
“We had introduced mandi at an outlet at Neyyanttinkara four months ago. As the response was great, my partners and I started Alif keeping the techie crowd in mind,” says Maheen.
At Baital Mandi, near Technopark, preparation starts by around 9 am to ensure the hot-seller is ready by lunch time. “Our idea is to focus on one dish and ensure it’s consistency. Apart from the traditional chicken mandi, we introduced the al-faham mandi for customers who like it more spicy,” says manager Nizamudeen M.
For reasons of convenience and space constraint, some joints serving mandi forgo the underground tandoor pit and instead go for large metal mandi ovens designed for use of charcoal. “It works just like a charcoal pit,” insists Biju Yohannan, manager of Bab Arabia at Kuravankonam. “We prepare the rice using stock water method wherein water in which the meat is boiled is used to cook the rice to lend it a strong flavour,” he says.
K Somasekhar, general manager of the Le Arabia group, points out that even without the “kuzhi”, the mandi tastes similar as the ingredients are the same.
Mandi comes in quarter, half and full portions and is often served with a dip made of tomato purée or green chilli sauce or mayonnaise depending on the restaurant’s preference. Some joints garnish the rice with carrot, cucumber, onion and green chilli.
So, why has the dish become so popular?
Biju of Bab Arabia says, perhaps, it has got to do with the large number of West Asia returnees in Kerala. “Moreover, unlike biriyani, less oil and masala are used to prepare mandi and hence it becomes a flavoursome alternative for the health conscious,” Biju says.