The Family Table cookbook showcases Mappila cuisine’s unique flavours

Chattipathiri to mutta maala, a Mappila family in Malabar shares their popular dishes in a new cookbook, which also reveals the cuisine’s colonial history

Updated - November 08, 2019 06:39 pm IST

Published - November 08, 2019 06:23 pm IST

If you want to know your family better, write a cookbook with them. This isn’t a saying, but it needs to be.

My folks, the Arinhal Karuvantevalappil family, are Mappilas, as the Muslims in the Malabar region of Kerala are called. We are food-proud, I explain when I’m asked why we chose to write a cookbook. The cuisine of the community is delightfully unique and draws influences from the various traders and colonisers who’ve landed on our doorstep over the centuries: from Arab merchants in the 7th century to Europeans in the late 15th century to the English who came to trade in the 17th century and vastly overstayed their welcome.

It all started in 2014, when a family Facebook group was set up to tighten those lax familial bonds. The conversation quickly turned to food, and it was here that the idea for a family cookbook first came into inception. With enthusiasm, a few volunteers set out to source the recipes that form the backbone of our cuisine — the simple, everyday ones, the complicated ones that are falling out of favour, and those in between. But the project eventually fell by the wayside, with a handful of recipes to show for it.

The idea was brought up again in 2018, but this time with lowered expectations. A tight deadline (just over a month) meant its scope would not be an ultimate tome of recipes, but a starting point.

Make, replicate

A 15-strong, all-women ‘Cookbook Committee’ was appointed, and we quickly organised ourselves to recipe-test what had been gathered five years ago, and collect new ones. Recipes flew back and forth over WhatsApp, with suggestions and tweaks made along the way. A few sessions were held in various aunts’ homes in Kannur, where they would demonstrate the more elaborate dishes or how to prepare ingredients — like carefully spooling the sticky fibres of the banana stem around your finger as you cut it.

While the elders would cook with deftness, and an innate sense of proportion and balance, my cousin Shabreen and I, who were in charge of noting down the recipes, would struggle to keep up, thrusting measuring cups and spoons into their hands, much to their irritation. However, as anyone who has ever written a recipe will tell you, its success lies in its replicability. Try explaining this to women who’ve learned to cook with fistfuls and pinches of ingredients. My aunt Razia says she keeps track by remembering the number of times she stirs a dish — add sugar to the milk and stir 100 times! We finally found a middle ground: we’d have them eyeball and pick up the right amount in their hands, and then quickly measure it in the cups and spoons we kept ready.

An infinite variety

Writing a family cookbook is complicated for many reasons, but especially for what we choose to exclude. Being pressed for time made this choice easier; we reached for the biggest hits. But it didn’t absolve us from having to decide which version of a recipe to include. In several cases, we opted for the less time-consuming one, and in others, the most popular. In the case of mutta kakkam (eggs in a spicy chilli paste), we included both versions (with onions, that my grandmother preferred, and without, the way her sister did) to avoid a family feud.

The process was a crash course into the sheer variety of dishes that can be made from rice and eggs, with coconut or Kerala plantain occasionally thrown in for good measure. Dishes like mutta maala and chattipathiri serve as delicious reminders of the illustrious history of the region. Chattipathiri , a sweet layered pastry has elements that are similar to the Moroccan pastilla . Mutta maala , candied threads of egg yolk, are a Mappila adaptation of the Portuguese dessert, Fios de ovos.

It was also interesting to learn that this is a cuisine that takes as much joy in cooking with simplicity as it does in coming up with the most convoluted recipes. Both are equally beloved. Everyday ingredients such as banana stem are treated with attention and imagination to create flavours that surprise and delight — whether it is kaambum thovara (where the stem is cooked with pigeon peas to form a full-bodied side), or kaamb mo’tilitte (where the finely-chopped stem is paired with grated coconut, bird’s eye chillies and butter milk to make a dish that is a more sophisticated cousin of the raita ).

A community story

Writing the book also drove home the idea that eating nose-to-tail isn’t a catch phrase in most regional cuisines, it is a way of life. The goat head curry is as celebrated and cherished as curries made with pricier cuts of meat.

In two weeks, we tested and documented 47 recipes, and over the next three weeks, I edited, compiled and photographed them. In a little over a month, we published The Family Table , which remains one of the most satisfying projects I’ve been part of. Cookbooks in general are more important today than they’ve ever been. They give us valuable insight into what life looked like for a certain people in a certain time and place, which is valuable from an anthropological point of view, but also important because it provides a way to understand the ‘other’ in these communally-charged times.

Aysha Tanya is editor and co-founder of The Goya Journal. The Family Table is ₹950, on

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