Food

On a food trail through Kerala’s Ponnani that has a culinary tradition marked by umpteen snacks, sweets and delicacies

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‘Allahu A'alam’ means Allah/ God knows best. But the Ponnani region of Kerala has a snack named thus. The story goes that after preparing several snacks, someone made a new dish with leftover fillings. When asked to name it, he/she said, ‘Allahu A'alam’ and the listener assumed that it was the name!

The square-shaped multi-layered snack has refined flour (maida), eggs and different fillings — scrambled or boiled eggs, mashed banana, nuts, raisins... It is a must on the festival menu and during important occasions in Muslim families in the region.

North Kerala, read Malabar, is known for its distinct cuisine, especially those prepared in Muslim households. If you think that Kozhikode and Kannur have the monopoly, people of Ponnani in the neighbouring Malappuram district will agree to differ.

Foodies and cultural activists from this scenic coastal town are promoting Ponnani’s indigenous dishes in a big way. Last year, before the pandemic, Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (PuKaSa), an organisation of artists, writers and cultural enthusiasts, had organised ‘Appangal embaadum’ in Ponnani as part of its state meet. “We showcased the culinary diversity of Ponnani by bringing together home cooks who are experts in making traditional snacks and eats,” says PK Khaleemudheen, lawyer and a member of PuKaSa.

Culinary melting pot

Once a major port, Ponnani has had domestic and international trade relations and have borne the brunt of invasions and battles too. Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and Yemeni folk have touched down on its soil at various points of history. “These foreign influences reflected in our food as well, be it in preparation or the names they have. What eventually made the cuisine so diverse is the joint family system with several families staying under one roof,” says Faseela Tharakath, a Malayalam lecturer, who has done research on the food of Ponnani as part of her PhD thesis.

Vijayan Kothambath, author and lawyer, recently brought out a pictorial children’s book, Appaanyathinupoya Palaharakkothiyanmar, which tells the story of two ants, Chonan and Maniyan, who are off to Ponnani angadi (market) from Valiyangadi in Kozhikode to see ‘Appaanyam’ or the sale of appams. “‘Appam’ is the general term we use for all items in our cuisine — snacks, cakes, pathiris, et al. ‘Appaanyam’, a shortened version of ‘Appangalude vanibham’ (market of appams), used to be held in Kozhikode several decades ago. I have used it in the Ponnani context for the book. Hospitality is in the blood of our people. We love to entertain guests with good food, that too with a generous spread,” says Vijayan.

“The PuKaSa event was our first step towards guiding these home cooks to become entrepreneurs. But the pandemic delayed our plans. However, the good thing is that after the event a few outlets have opened in Ponnani to sell food sourced directly from these women,” says Khaleemudheen. The cooks have also formed a WhatsApp group, adds Faseela.

Food just overflows during festivals and weddings. In north Kerala, Muslim families hold ‘Puyyappla salkkaram’, a ‘custom’ where the bride’s family treats the bridegroom with a lavish spread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This goes for a week or even more! “It is quite deplorable that the women toil hard in the kitchen while the men do nothing. However, most of the snacks that we have today might have been invented by our mothers or grandmothers because of this custom,” Khaleemudheen says.

They often say, Ponnani menu has ada (steamed rice pancakes) to aleesa (a wheat-based porridge with chicken/mutton and spices, inspired by Arab cuisine. One is spoilt for choice when it comes to snacks made in this region. “The fried snacks have a shelf life of few weeks to months and they are purchased in bulk by those who travel abroad. Kozhi ada, a crispy snack with meat filling, can be kept for three months,” says Asmabi.

And then there is mutta pathiri, fondly called Ponnani’s ‘national food’. “The batter with raw rice, urad dal and raw pappadams (pappadams are soaked in water to make a fine paste) is fried in oil. We have it with morning tea or as breakfast,” says Asmabi V, who runs a bakery in Ponnani.

Some like it sweet

For those with a sweet tooth, Ani J, a homemaker-cum-entrepreneur, mentions vazhakkapaal, a version of unnakkaya or stuffed banana fritters. “A filling of scrambled egg, nuts and raisins goes into boiled and mashed bananas shaped like spindles. They are not fried. It is had with a pudding made of coconut milk, rice flour and shallots cooked in ghee,” she says.

Vindi halwa is another native Ponnani sweet. Rice, fried in oil, jaggery syrup, coconut and cardamom, are the ingredients. “We get special jaggery from Lakshadweep to prepare it at our bakery,” Asmabi says.

Poovappam is flower-shaped, whereas manda is a samosa with a sweet filling of semolina, sugar and cardamom. Ambattil/Ambayathil ada, a fried snack, looks like a cone. The dough is passed through idiyappam moulds before they are shaped like cones.

Among other popular snacks are ball-shaped kimmaath eaten with sugar syrup, kuriyappam (steamed small rice balls) and paliyathappam/palaikkappam, mini spindle-shaped rice dumplings cooked in coconut milk.

Chirattamala, a must for ‘Puyyapla salkkaram’, looks like jalebi. The maida-based batter is deep-fried by passing it through one eye of a coconut shell. Other regulars for the feast include erachi pidi (rice dumplings in beef boti), muttamala and muttasurkka (made from egg yolks and egg whites respectively) and pathiris.

Both sweets as well as savouries come in interesting shapes and with drool-worthy fillings. For example, kidutha, a sweet snack with coconut filling, areerappams that look like mini donuts, biscuitappam, shaped like the number eight, and chukkappam, resembling cute little buttons. “Chukkappam has rice flour, eggs, shallots and black cumin seeds and is salty. It is best had with beef fry or prawns roast,” says Asmabi. Karakkappam is a variation of chukkappam.

As for the pathiris, one can go on about the varieties — velichenna pathiri, nei pathiri, nice pathiri, kai pathiri, kattipathiri, irachi pathiri, poricha pathiri, chatti pathiri are only a few. Just as numerous are the kinds of cakes —mutta cake, rava cake, maida cake, thari cake, kuzhi cake, pazham cake, as Vijayan mentions in his book.

Ponnani made history last year when it started first-of-its-kind common kitchen for multiple families. “We are holding a workshop on the topic, ‘Adukkala Rashtreeyam Charcha Cheyyappedumbol’, on November 17 [at ICSR Academy, Eswaramangalam, Ponnani] where we will also look at what can be done to promote entrepreneurship among the home-cooks. Some of them are so passionate about cooking that they don’t charge anything from the customers,” concludes Khaleemudheen.

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