Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
An ethnic Moplah feast
The author is a Chennai based food writer.
The Malayalam speaking Muslims of Kerala, more particularly in the northern districts known as Malabar, are known as Moplahs. The term is derived from Mapillai, meaning newlywed groom or son-in-law of the house (both in Tamil and Malayalam). It might also have come from Mahapillai or a person held in esteem and respect. Their ancestry goes back to the Arabs who had come to trade with Kerala, famed for its pepper and spices not to mention the ubiquitous coconut and its many byproducts. The trade had been going on for long, well before the birth of Prophet Muhammad and continued with the advent of Islam. The local chieftains of Kerala with its long coastline welcomed traders from beyond the seas and the local inhabitants did not lag behind in receiving them with open arms.
Many sailors had to stay behind during the monsoon. It was but natural for them to intermarry with the locals. In course of time religious conversions came as a matter of course, especially when the local Malayalis found they could free themselves from the shackles of caste by adopting the new battle.
It should be remembered that not only the first mosque but the first church and the first synagogue were built in Kerala long before foreign hordes stepped on the Indian soil more for loot and plunder than to spread their religion.
The Moplahs continued to speak Malayalam, their mother tongue, and did not care to learn Arabic in a scientific way. However, they developed a sub cultural identity of their own even though they adopted local customs, even to the extent of adopting the matrilinear joint family system in many parts of Kerala.
Rice was the staple item of food and they used coconut oil in cooking. However they displayed marked variations in some food items which came to be associated with the Moplah cuisine. Along with wheat chappatis they had their own rice variants called pathiris (probably the name is derived from Urdu/Hindi word pathli, meaning thin), wafer thin rice dosais cooked over a tava and garnished with coconut milk, and a thicker variety made of ground rice.
Cooked rice was the staple diet. Boiled rice was cooked in the usual way but the average Moplah household preferred par-boiled rice to raw rice. Fried rice called neichoru or ghee rice, was a delicacy meant for special occasions. This dish has now "graduated" into biryani or pulav which must have originally come from Samarkhand with the Moghuls and migrated through the Deccan and the rule of the Arcot Nawabs into Kerala. The Moplah genius has developed many variants of the biryani, some of which are spicy hot to suit local palates.
One particular dish needs special mention as it seems to be totally Arab in origin. The Aleesa is a thick porridge of wheat and lamb meat or chicken generally garnished with ghee and usually eaten with sugar. It can be very filling and is served at marriage feasts as the second item on the menu, before the rice. It used to be a "must" to be served to the puthiyapila or the newlywed groom.
Another Moplah speciality is the Mutta Mala, literally "egg garland", made from pure egg yolk and cooked in sugar syrup without a trace of oil or fat. Making this noodle like dish requires considerable expertise as the only device used is made from a smooth coconut shell spoon with a hole in the middle, the handle being polished bamboo. The golden yellow egg noodle is spread thinly on a porcelain dish and surrounded by white creamish sweet pudding like pieces made from the white of the egg, thereby ensuring that no part of the egg, except the shell, is wasted. This is a north Malabar speciality and not popular in southern Kerala.
In olden days the groom's party is first served Mutta Mala followed by Aleesa, the third delicacy being the richly cooked meat or chicken biryani. Why the two sweet dishes are first served followed by biryani is anybody's guess; though a cynical explanation is that the sweet dishes are meant to kill the appetite of the guests who accompany the groom.
By and large Moplahs are non vegetarians and they insist on the slain fowl being formally cut at the jugular vein to drain the blood. Fish is a much relished item on the menu and is prepared in a variety of ways. Stuffed fish and chicken are special varieties served on festive occasions. Not that vegetables are taboo. Far from it, they form a staple item at all meals. The lowly drumstick including even the leaves, tapioca and yam are all prized vegetables on the menu. Pumpkin is used in the place of the present day potato in meat curries. The average Moplah meal has hardly anything exotic to mark them as outlandish. Puttu, steamed rice cakes served with Kadalai (or fish according to taste, has been the staple Moplah breakfast in most households, rich or poor, as it is in Sri Lanka.
The Moplah marriage is a simple contractual affair, generally the Kazi performing the ceremony between the groom and the bride's father or male guardian before witnesses and usually entering details on the marriage register kept for the purpose. Although the marriage is arranged by the family elders it is necessary that the girl and groom must meet and each approve of the other and the Kazi must make sure of their mutual consent. A mahar or bride price must be fixed before hand and given over to the girl's representative in front of the gathering or at least an assurance given that it would be paid.
(The fixing of a dowry payable to the groom is unknown in Islam although now it is flouted in practice).
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