Iftar food in Kerala is influenced by Middle Eastern cuisine.
Having lived in Kochi for more than two years now, it is now starting to feel at home. Be it finding good local food, meeting new people or being invited for a special Malabar iftar. While I do miss my favourite spots in Mumbai, the city I grew up in, Kochi offers a variety of flavours to satiate a foodie like me. And Ramzan is no different.
Like Mumbai, Kochi too has its Muslim neighbourhoods. Aluva, a suburb in Kochi is similar to let's say, a Jogeshwari or Bandra where Hindu, Christian and Muslim families have been living together for years. So it is only likely, that this small part of town comes alive during the holy month of Ramzan. Other localities include Edapally, home to the famous Lulu Mall, Kalamassery and parts of Kaloor.
A Moplah feast
Quite recently, I was invited to an iftar dinner or 'nombu thura' (breaking the fast) by my spouse's friend. There, I observed, that at sunset, he broke the fast with dates and a glass of water. He offered his prayers and then joined us at the dining table for a feast. We started out with delicacies like meat samosas, medu vada, bonda (potato vada), chicken cutlets and graduated to pathiri (bread made from rice flour), chicken and beef curry, chicken biryani, idi appams or string hoppers and prawn curry and finished with some fresh fruit and unnakaya or a fried mixture of banana and coconut.
But, before we dug into all the food, we were asked to try thari kanji, a broth-like preparation made from semolina, milk or coconut milk, sugar and fried onions. This concoction is supposed to give an instant sense of relief and energy to someone who has been fasting the entire day followed by a helping of fruits. All the food, finally is washed down by a suleimani or a black tea usually spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. This is supposed to aid in digestion too.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a 30-year old CA, who invited us for iftar, told us that fasting foods are usually something that gives energy to sustain through the day like thari kanji, fruits or string rice hoppers.
While growing up in Goregaon in Mumbai, I had access to some tasty street food in areas like Jogeshwari and Malad. Iftar fare in Kochi is different from these due to its influence from Middle Eastern cuisine. Take for instance, pathiri, stove-top bread made with rice flour and said to have originated with the Arabs in the Malabar region. Pathiri is regularly eaten during the holy month of Ramzan with fish or meat.
The foundation of Moplah cuisine (food of the Malabari Muslims) is coconut oil, which is a Kerala staple, and spices introduced by traders from the Middle East like cardamom, pepper and cloves that are cooked in a coconut gravy. Then there are grilled meat dishes like Al Faham and Sheekh Taouk, which have become an integral part of this type of cuisine. Even kabsa, a type of biryani, is the product of this kind of fusion cooking. It is essentially rice flavoured with whole spices, which is wrapped in banana leaf and steamed, and then served with grilled meat.
Like in many other food cultures, the iron skillet is an important utensil to cook meat curries in. While the kabsa from Saudi Arabia is usually cooked in an earthen oven, here in Kochi, it is steamed. Biryanis here are usually cooked using the dum technique of sealing the vat with dough and placing coal on top. The meats in the curry are usually pressure cooked before adding them to spices as tenderised meat is always preferred.
A major difference between iftar food in Mumbai and Kochi also lies in the style of eating. While a lot of Mumbaikars step out to eat late at night, people in Kochi prefer eating in the quiet of their home. While Mumbai is more about the street food stalls, here it is more about bakeries and rushing to one to grab a parcel of stuffed pathiri or meat puffs before breaking the fast with the family.
Where to eat iftar food in Kochi
There are several places one can frequent to in Kochi for Malabar iftar food. Some of them are Ifthar in Edapally known for their snacks such as meat samosas, stuffed pathiri and unnakaya or Majlis and Al Marai for grilled meat delicacies and biryanis. These places also deliver iftar packages complete with dates, thari kanji and a dessert to homes during the month of Ramzan. One could also head to Haji Ali (yes, Kochi also has one!) for fresh fruit juices, desserts and different kinds of faloodas and shakes. Other places to checkout are Nawras at Chittoor Road and Kayees biryani at Ernakulam.
Recipe for Nadan Kozhi Curry
1 kg chicken cut into curry-size pieces
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
4-5 cardamom pods
1 inch piece cinnamon
One big onion sliced
1 1/2 tsp ginger garlic paste
1 small cup coconut milk
Handful of curry leaves
1. Marinate the chicken in chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala, pepper and juice of one lemon for 45 minutes or so.
2. Sauté the whole spices like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.
3. Add sliced onion and ginger and garlic paste. Cook till they turn brown.
4. Add the marinated chicken and simmer till the chicken is cooked through.
5. Add coconut milk, curry leaves and turn off the heat.
6. Serve with pathiri.
The author is a former journalist on a sabbatical, who is trying to find her writing voice. Her blog Bombay, Beatles, Bharatanatyam is inspired from the fact that all three have had a role in shaping the person she is.