New Year 2019 Issue

The Spice Route

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What’s it about Thalassery biryani

IT IS PAST 1 PM AND AS THE TAXI moves southward through Kannur in north Kerala on National Highway 66 along the Arabian Sea, Prabhakaran, a 65-year-old driver from neighbouring Kozhikode, says “Mole (dear girl), it is better to stop for lunch before crossing the district if you want Thalassery biryani.” Childhood memories of a subtly flavoured home delicacy—with delicately spiced meat in cow ghee-sautéed rice covered with golden fried onions, cashews and raisins—start tickling the taste buds. Was that the eulogised Thalassery biryani? Prabhakaran stops at a small roadside restaurant at Edakkad. Inside, immersed in a mix of aromas, clatter of steel plates and a menu of ambrosial delights, people eat in near silence.

Within minutes, a young man comes to the table and asks, “Mutton, chicken, beef, fish, mussel or vegetable?” He also has a tray of fish—from sardines to kingfish— to choose from. Prabhakaran, who insists on calling the road by its old name NH 17, says the taste changes once you cross over to Kozhikode. He orders a plate of what he calls the famous Thalassery chicken biryani.

Why? He just smiles.

Never had I imagined that one day I would be on a quest to trace the odyssey of Thalassery biryani, having taken the name of this town and dish for granted all my life. Some vouch for its uniqueness in comparison with other biryanis, while others say it has become just a catchphrase, it’s authenticity lost somewhere along the way. My search for the story of Thalassery biryani in a maze of cultures, history and folklore turns out to be more challenging than several political write-ups.

Ingrained in the region’s ethos—be it proletarian, bourgeois or savoir-vivre— the Mappila (Malabar Muslim) culinary tradition has crossed religious, social and cultural boundaries. The aroma wafts through wedding venues, social gatherings, family get-togethers, political party meets, cricket matches and even the circus. The people of Thalassery, a coastal town that once served as a Malabar hub of the spice trade, have always taken pride in their culinary skills. The Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British traders who reached its shores for spices, mainly pepper and cardamom, left their imprint on its cuisine—fish molee (stew) and a confectionery called haluva, or the famed biryani.

Historians have traced the biryani to the influence of Persians, Arabs and also Memons from the Kutch region. Being a rice-based dish, it was easily absorbed into the diet of a people for whom rice was a staple grain. The trader community of Kutchi Memons, said to have reached Gujarat from Sindh, were also among the various people who migrated to Thalassery, according to KK Marar, a painter, writer and historian. “The locals learnt the dum biryani from them. The ingredients are chosen carefully in the preparation,” says Marar, whose passion for history has made him collect every bit of information on the dish that he could lay his hands on ever since his childhood. ‘Thala’ means headquarters, and ‘cheri’ settlement, he says, explaining the name of the port town that was also a gateway to Wayanad and Coorg. MN Karassery, an eminent literary figure from North Malabar and a writer on Muslim fables, agrees that Kutchi Memons had popularised the biryani.

“Food represents how much you interact with the world,” says Vinod Kottayil Kalidasan, an academic whose expertise is Malabar history and philosophy. He says the Arakkal kingdom of which Thalassery was a part was the only place ruled by a queen in the early 19th century. Known as Arakkal Beevi, the queen had connections with Muslims across the world, including Arabs and the Memons of Kutch.

In a book titled Kerala Modernity, Kalidasan contends that Malabar’s history of pre-colonial trade with other regions of the world could be traced back millennia. He has drawn a distinction between the nature of ancient and medieval trade links that Malabaris had with Arabs, and the global trade after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on Malabar’s shores in 1498. In the case of trade with Arabs, an ancient trade link that Mappilas of Malabar maintained, Malabaris had all the freedom and right to decide what to sell, how much to sell and at what price. ‘It is important to note that the Mappilas of Malabar also had a good understanding of the Arab ways and preferences,’ writes Kalidasan. In the colonial period, that freedom was taken away and Europeans and their goods ‘monopolised’ Malabar.

Like the Arabic language, translation of the Qur’an and the Arabic-Malayalam dictionary, the mingling brought about cultural influences on the palate. The aforementioned haluva, a sweet made of refined wheat or rice and ghee, with flavours like banana, cashew, date, coconut, pineapple or jackfruit, also survived the influx of Europeans from across the oceans. The Paris Hotel, as the locals still call it, stands testimony to this. MK Ahmed, who founded it in 1942 and gave it this name after his Paris Bakery in Ceylon, wanted to offer dum biryani to customers.

The Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British traders who reached the shores of Thalassery for spices—mainly pepper and cardamom—left their imprint on its cuisine. There is fish molee (stew) and a confectionery called haluva, apart from its famed biryani

The Paragon Group of Restaurants, which had originally opened as Paragon Bakery and Restaurant in 1939 in Kozhikode, considered serving Thalassery biryani, and after experimenting and tweaking it to create several variants over a period of six-seven years, came out with a formula that sells around 500 kg a day in a single outlet today.

“Paragon food is predominantly a fusion of Muslim and Thiya [a North Malabar community] cuisines. Muslim food is subtle. Thiya food is spicier,” says Paragon Group of Restaurants Managing Director Sumesh Govind. Besides ten restaurants in Kerala, the group has one in Sharjah and six in Dubai, taking some of these Middle Eastern flavours back to their origin.

PK Thomas, the Paragon Group’s head chef, says the three elements that set Thalassery biryani apart from others are the use of small-grain rice, its mildness of flavours and a Persian style of preparation called dum pukht. He adds that over time the dish has been seasoned with several other influences. Cooked with kaima or jeerakasala rice, a small-grain variety unlike the long-grain Basmati generally used in other types of biryani, the Thalassery version involves cooking by sealing the lid and placing hot charcoal on it.

Neither colour nor red chilli powder is used in the biryani. Instead, it is spiced with green chillies, and in some versions, a smattering of crushed black pepper, an ingredient that much of the world had once pursued. “It was generally made with country chicken and cow ghee. If the biryani was being prepared, you could get the aroma outside,” says Malayakkal Aamina, ex-chairperson, Thalassery Municipality. The affluent Keyis (ship-owners), who had their roots in Thalassery, went by ship to Mecca for Hajj and popularised dishes like biryani and alsa back home. She recalls how the biryani played a major role in Muslim weddings and salkaram (receptions). For 40 days, the puthiyapalla (bridegroom), as he would continue to be called all his life, was treated to a range of delicacies in the bride’s house. The fare would be laid out on a white cloth before the guests, who would sit on a paya (bamboo mat) on the floor with long cushions to rest on. Biryani was eaten from one large plate in typical Islamic style.

Aamina, who belongs to a Mappila family, witnessed this tradition at her own wedding in 1974 when she was 19. The first night, at her tharavad (family home), there was nayi chor (ghee rice); and the next day biryani, pathiri (a rice pancake), alsa (a Middle Eastern meat dish) and muttamala (a dessert made with eggs) were served to the groom and his relatives. These feasts to please the groom went on for 40 days.

“Today, things have changed. People can’t spare 40 days any longer. There are tables, chairs, buffets and cutlery. But, the biryani still has pride of place,” says Aamina.

OVER TIME, THE culinary lines between various communities blurred. The dish is now also part of feasts among non-Muslims, and it could be made with chicken, lamb, fish, beef, mussels, eggs or vegetables.

Marar narrates a story of how the Arakkal Rajas, a Muslim royal family of Kerala, owed their lineage to a Nair family from Dharmadam, a village near Thalassery. The tale goes back to around a century after the Portuguese and Dutch came after pepper. In the early part of the 18th century, the French established military units in Thalassery before moving to Mahé, around 9 km away along the coast. A local administrator, Kurungot Nair, who was close to the French, made it convenient for them to export spices. After the British, whose hostilities with the French were well known, got permission from the Kolathiri Rajas of Malabar to build a factory and trading post at Tellicherry—the Anglicised name of the town—in 1694, Nair along with the French attacked the British godowns. By then, the British were already buying pepper from Muslim merchants. After this, the Prince of Vadakkalankur gave space to the British to build a fort there. “It was during the British [era] that Thalassery became an international centre of spices. Its pepper even now is the finest in the world,” says Marar.

The British kept commission agents to collect spices from North Malabar and hand these over to them. Chovvakkaran Moosa was one of the first to sign a pact with the British for the supply of pepper in the 18th century

The British kept commission agents to collect spices from North Malabar and hand these over to them. Chovvakkaran Moosa, who belonged to the Keyi family, was one of the first to sign a pact with the British for the supply of pepper in the late 18th century. He amassed wealth.

By the time Tipu Sultan seized Malabar in 1786, Thalassery had become a vital centre for the spice trade.

Kalidasan has written that the Thalassery and Wayanad factories, established in 1694, had two related duties to perform: collect spices from the region and establish the East India Company’s military domination. “Spices, known to have been cultivated in the region, had a special place both in the culture and in the cuisine of Malabar when the European traders arrived,” he says. In Europe, according to him, pepper was a crucial ingredient to preserve beef and pork for the winter months. In the late 19th century, the invention of refrigeration diminished the demand for pepper in those countries.

In the narrow winding streets of the charming town of Thalassery, peppered with its history, the past and present co- exist in harmony. The people of this town in Kannur district are not just proud of their biryani, but also their three Cs: Cake, Cricket and Circus, all of which had a link to the town’s cosmopolitan history.

Besides, Thalassery was also a seat of learning in the 19th century, home to the first Malayalam newspapers Rajya Samacharam and Paschimodayam and the first major novel in the language, O Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, which revolves around an educated woman.

In 1883, according to Marar, Henrik Karnik Brown, the son of a Scot called Murdoch Brown who established a cinnamon plantation at Anjarakandy near Thalassery, walked into a bakery owned by Mambally Bapu just before Christmas with a plum cake from England and asked him to bake one. Bapu, who had started a bakery called Mambally’s Royal Biscuit Factory in 1880, used the best local spices to bake a cake which took Brown by surprise. That is said to be the first cake baked in India.

The Mambally family started bakery chains in the state and also contributed to the development of cricket in the state. Marar narrates an interesting tale about how the locals learnt cricket, believed to have been introduced by Lord Arthur Wellesley in Kerala in the 18th century for British soldiers garrisoned in the Tellicherry Fort. “The British playing cricket would use the children of dhobis, etc. to pick up the ball when it hit boundaries. These children were also included in their team if they ran short of the required 22. They picked up the game,” he says. The Town Cricket Club set up in 1850 was India’s first cricket club.

The story of the circus is similar. A man called Keeleri Kunhikannan, who watched Vishnu Pant Chhatre’s Great Indian Circus that featured mostly animals and birds, introduced the participation of local people and started a circus gymnasium in town.

Among the town’s residents was Hermann Gundert, a German missionary and lexicographer who came to spread Christianity in the region. He learnt Malayalam, wrote around 14 books, settled down in Thalassery in 1839, and played a significant role in bringing out the first Malayalam newspapers and the first Malayalam-English dictionary. The Gundert bungalow, built at Illikunnu in traditional Kerala architectural style, is currently being refurbished as part of a Heritage Tourism Project.

The British godowns are still there, but they are no longer used for pepper. However, the town’s cuisine has stood the test of time. Tellicherry restaurants have come up in cities like Bengaluru, serving specialities like biryani, Kerala parotta (a maida-based parantha), fried snacks and sweets. There is another chain called North Malabar Food Magic run by Muslims of the region.

According to Aamina, the mildness of Thalassery biryani had suited the palate of even Europeans, who found most other Indian food too hot and spicy.

Pushpesh Pant, a food critic and historian, says the famed dish is a variation of a Mapilla recipe. “It is a meat and rice dish strong on flavours. You can call it what you like. A biryani to me generally has long-grain rice, colour, is aromatic and its rice is fried,” he says.

Whether taste auditors find it authentic or not, the Thalaserry brand of biryani has come to stay. And the taste lies in the details.