Wah! Moplaaah! and my Blah! Blah!

There are tales; and there are stories. This is somewhere in between. A story intertwined in tales of survival.

Many people in Delhi may have never heard of this place called Sarai Julena. Adjacent to New Friend’s Colony, it is at the periphery of Jamia Nagar. If you walk around that place you will clearly understand its demography. Malayalam and North Eastern faces dominate the ambience and you will not take too much time to guess that a majority of them are courtesy the Escorts hospital. I am about to talk about somebody who is courtesy Bombay riots.

This couple has fought displacement more than twice in their lifetime. During these troubled times they stuck to was what they did best-being patient and good food.I will not go as such into details. Did not feel like making an issue out of something Ali and Mercy had long buried in their hearts. They have run all their lives.

When I stumbled upon Malabar Hotel-a small restaurant in a cramped galli* in Sarai Julena thanks to a foodie friend and journalist Joji Thomas, I definitely anticipated something interesting. It was ‘aromating’ migrant cuisine. My nose has become accustomed to tracing the best of the rustic cuisine in these gallis world over. So, in no way was I surprised that this hotel served simple and delicious food from one of southern India’s most beautiful states, Kerala.

*galli: a small by lane

The Galli

The Galli

The ever serene Mercy this time proclaims with pride, “We serve the best Malabar biryani in Delhi.” Do I agree? Well, the fact of the matter is, I go to this place for the mackerel and beef fry, the meen mouli, the egg roast, the thaali, the stew, the aappams, the chicken prepared with pepper and the leafy paronthas. And I visit this place over and over again, not just because the food is good and unbelievably reasonable, but I am simply moved by the spirit of this couple. But before getting into that, let me give you a brief idea about their background. They belong to a community in Kerala called the Moplahs. And no brownie points for guessing that I am mentioning this because Moplah cuisine is truly blessed by the Gods.

Mackerel fry

Mackerel fry

Being readers of food and history, we all probably know about the Spice trade which had started much before the birth of Christ and Prophet Mohammed. Indeed, food had to come before religion! Arabia was one of the most important territories engaged in the spice trade and it is tremendously fascinating that from 950 BCE to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, people in Kerala received different batches of traders who had converted from one belief to the other. The last batches of traders to come were Muslims, who would stay back in Kerala during the monsoons.  Amongst those who stayed back, a lot of them inter married. What some historians told me is that many Hindu people got married to the Arabs in order to escape from the shackles of staunch cast system that existed in Kerala at that point in time. What developed as a result was a unique Malayalam speaking Muslim community called Moplah. I have been given to understand that the term traces back to the words Mapillai, meaning newlywed groom or son-in-law of the house (both in Tamil and Malayalam) and Mahapillai, someone you hold in great esteem.

Now let me come straight to the food. Yes, I had already started missing it! Moplah cuisine is a divine confluence of Arabic, Persian, Moghul and Malabar cuisine. I say divine for that’s how I describe good food. Moplah cuisine consists of a fascinating array of fish, meat and vegetable dishes along with some delectable desserts and snacks.

Rice is staple and cooked in several ways. A special fried rice preparation is done with ghee and is called neychoru. The Moplahs also prepare a very interesting biryani. Many believe that it was neychoru that was gradually transformed into biryani after a Moghul influence that migrated through the Deccan. The biryani which developed as a result is completely different from what you get in the rest of the country specially the north Indian style. They also have their own rendition of the dosai and parontha which are leafy and the dosais-wafer thin. A special kind of chappati is called pattiri which is prepared from rice flour and stuffed with keema* or chicken. The Coorgis also have a similar dish in fact, about which I shall write eventually in my blog.

*Keema: Minced meat

One Moplah preparation I am always fascinated by is something that is called mutta mala literally translated as egg garland. For someone (like me) with a sweet tooth and a restriction of sugar, this dish acts as the perfect seductress!

Muttamala

Muttamala

The delicacy is prepared from egg (of course) yolk and sugar syrup. The concoction with a single string consistency is carefully poured through a device made out of coconut shell with a small hole after it is being cooked. This is served with kinnathappam prepared from the white of the egg. Some are of the opinion that duck eggs make a better mutta mala. Mentioning muttamala and skipping aleesa could be registered as a crime. Aleesa’s Arabic origin makes its texture and flavours very interesting. It is a thick porridge prepared from wheat and lamb/chicken meat. It is laced with ghee and usually eaten with sugar. I say that it is of prime importance to mention aleesa after muttamala because it is a typical sequence in which the  conglomeration of three dishes is served in a Moplah wedding. The  meal is initiated with muttamala followed by aleesa. the main course is the Moplah Biryani.

One of the reasons why I love Moplah cuisine is because of the predominance of the non vegetarian. From sea food to beef to mutton to whatever-Moplah food teases you and tickles your taste buds. The Konchu curry-a prawn dish cooked in coconut milk and curry leaves is a sea food lovers delight. However, for the more adventurous ones, there is a mussels dish called kallummekkaya. The mussels are first cooked in coconut milk, and later ftossed in Malabar pepper and fried. Fish is extremely popular and meen mulagittathu cooked in tamarind and red chilli peppers has the distinct tangy flavour of tamarind. However, the Moplah cuisine can also boast of a few interesting vegetarian dishes. They usually prepare tapioca, yam leaves and pumpkin.

See, as I always do, i.e., get diverted from my topic of origin, this time is no different. I was to tell you Mercy and Ali’s story and I shall. This couple as I said belongs to the Moplah community in Kerala. Several years back they leave Kerala to settle down in Mumbai and started a well received catering business. They were doing well, when destiny took a completely different turn. The Bombay riots of 1993. They were left with no other choice but to leave the city bag and baggage. They chose to remain alive in place of running a business. This enterprising couple decides to head to the capital territory of the country, hoping they could start life afresh.

That’s how the concept to Malabar Hotel was redesigned, reinvented and resumed. It started off as a restaurant on the Sarai Julena main road and had started doing impressive business, also considering the fact that they would take catering orders as well. But as their trying destiny would have it, people of Delhi saw another major shift during the sealing episode. Well, I do not want to get into the legalities and rights and wrongs of the situation, but the bottom line is, Ali and Mercy once again lost their business in a mass action/uprising; this time in Delhi.

Finally after a few months of struggles and uncertainties, with two children to bring up, they managed to start the restaurant a little on the inside.  If anybody has read a story called the Martyr’s Corner written by R.K. Narayan, you will understand what kind of adrenalin rush did I have when I heard about it. However, unlike the character Rama of the story, Ali and Mercy haven’t yet accepted martyrdom. They have been working relentlessly, both in the restaurant and their catering business and are doing very well to my knowledge. Kindly read the Martyr’s Corner-it is a beautiful story anyway! (The description of the vendor’s south Indian food by R. K. Narayan can only lead to hunger, anticipation and fantasies of just digging into it.)

Couchsurfers' day out

Couchsurfers' day out

Time and again I have taken my friends to eat there-this time I went with a bunch of fellow couchsurfers (couchsurfers are a community of global travellers who stay at peoples homes thereby bridging cultures together). Couchsurfers meet up, host each other and on many occasions travel together. That day about ten of us, met up at the Malabar Hotel and the rest, I can only pictorially explain. Let me explain what we ordered: rice thaali ten plates, mackerel fry almost six to seven plates, chicken 65 about five plates, meen curry four plates, beef fry five plates, vegetable stew four plates…in short, we hogged and we hogged only to pay Rs 1600 approximately forty USD.Where will you get such value for money.

The last piece of chicekn 65 left on our plate, which of ofpurse was eventually eaten

The last piece of chicken 65 left on our plate, which of course was eventually eaten

Rice and Poppadum

Rice and Poppadum

Malabar resturant is not really a Moplah resturant as such but they do serve a few Moplah dishes and good kerala food.However if you ask Mercy and Ali  to cook some exclusive Moplah food for us I am sure they would gladly do it and with pride. For me they have never refused.

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16 Responses to “Wah! Moplaaah! and my Blah! Blah!”

  1. Ragini Bhatia Says:

    Very well written Ashish-Your love for food and passion for its flavours emit in all your writngs.I have a copy of the Exotica magazine in which you wrote about the tribal foods of India.It has safely gone into my collection of food stories.
    best of luck for all your writings I for one will remain your fan.

  2. Mini kriplani Says:

    One of the best food blogs that I have ever read.It is so complete that reading it is such a pleasure.Well done.I for sure will follow your blog.
    cheers

  3. Writing and eating never had so much in common as on your blog Ashish. The posts on your blog are food for thought indeed. I enjoyed your adventurous style of writing like you are uncovering a long forgotten tale. You would make an excellent investigative journalist. What can I say about the story and the Kerala cuisine? Having lived in the southern states of India, I am well acquainted with their cuisine and yet I felt like I had missed something supremely superb, Such is the magic of your story-telling. Keep writing and exploring various cuisines that might otherwise be forgotten if not for your patronage. A modern day chronicler of cuisine you are my friend.

  4. I was really touched by this couple’s patience and perseverance. And it was great that you brought their story along with the cuisine. I have in the past worked with many artists of talent – who had such turns of destiny. I wonder, as a country whether we will ever be able to value and protect such endeavours. I hope that someone in a position to help – will read this blog and get this enterprising couple a decent place to operate from.

  5. Peter wilkinson Says:

    Dear Dr.Chopra,
    What a touching story.I am at the University of Cornell and teach culinary history and practices there at the cornell school of hotel administration.I just love your blog and have started following it only recently.It is so different than other food blogs.Every aritcle is worth a read.
    best regards
    Peter

  6. Seema Guha Says:

    I got this link on facebook and must mention I just enjoyed reading your blog and along with it the many interesting articles.I am a passionate cook and love to write as well.You are beyond my expectations.Continue to keep the passion alive.Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
    Seema

  7. As one of the couchsurfers that were there I can tell you the food was really really good altho one dish had too much chilly pepper for me to eat but everyone else seemed to enjoy it. Also walking down that little alley towards the Malabar Hotel I was able to buy some plantains which I do not ordinarily find in Delhi and that was a real treat. Great admiration goes to the proprietors of the Malabar, and for Ashish for his contribution.

  8. Alan Parson davidson Says:

    Thanks to google while researching on Indian cuisine I come across your blog.Must compliment you for the idepth study that you have done to do your stories.You are a storyteller and your writings reflect your passion for food.It comes from the heart.I can relate this as I am writing on food ,travel and lifestyle in UK for over two decades now.You have now a full time follower of your blog in me.
    well done.
    Alan

  9. sudeep majumdar Says:

    How do you manage to look for offbeat places I just cant believe it.Remember Kolkota,I thought I knew my city well but when it came to food you just beat me to it.The soup joint you took me to in new market was something out of this world.You are begnning to give us foodie bengalis a big complex my friend.Well documented piece and has a great storyline.
    well done.

  10. What a fantastic blog-stumbled upon it completely by accident! Great Stuff!

  11. Ronita & Vijay Says:

    Ashishda, another feather added to your cap for being such an incredible foodie. The experience of searching the place, parking our car, walking by the narrow lanes and sharing the same table again specially for one of my favourite Indian (Kerela) cuisine will forever be remembered & cherished specially after wanting to go there since a year of Joji’s reference.
    Waiting for the next monthly indulgence,
    Best wishes always & forever,
    Your loving sis, Ronita

  12. Malabar Food festival was First hosted in 2008,Due to the over whelming response and popularity to Malabari culinary excellence , we have decided to conduct twice a year from 2010.

    The Malabar region of India lies along the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula and forms the northern part of the present-day Indian state of Kerala. Maroli holds the distinction of being the only Indian Malabari (Kerala) Restaurants in Toronto.

    Maroli will showcase savoury items from Malabar and allow visitors to taste unique Malabar cuisine, which has been influenced by Dutch, British, French, Portuguese and Arab culinary arts from various regimes in the 17th through 20th century.

    Malabar is noted for its variety of pancakes and steamed rice cakes, biryani made of mutton, chicken, egg and fish. Arikadaka, a concoction of rice , fennel and coconut filled in mussels and steamed are a Malabari gem . Meen moilee (a Greenish yellow fish curry ), Mathi Fry (Pan Fried Sardine), Oyster stewed in Coconut sauce or a Pan Fried Sardine are also staples of a Malabari diet. olath erachi (fried mutton or beef are amongst the more popular meat items in the region. Another interesting feature is the abundant use of coconut, coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and coconut milk.
    A $30 .00 entry fee allows foodies access to this unique Indian culinary experience which includes viewing of live food preparation, as well relishing in intricately carved fruits and vegetables and a drink inclusive .This intimate experience is open to the public from Noon to 10 pm on Saturday, May 1st & May 2nd and Sunday until 10 pm , at Maroli, Toronto’s only Malabari & Indian restaurant.

  13. Ashis in is journey takes one through the breath taking reality of combining socio-eco-cultural dynamics and food.I endorse his rather interesting exploration to expose the nuances ,intricacies and expertise of different subcultural food habits.Food for thought.It is.Keep up the great work.

  14. OMG such a nice blog and so well written….really emits your love for food…

  15. could you give directions to this place ? I am very keen to check this out!

  16. prashant pandey Says:

    How can they procure meats at so little prices…….that must be procured from road side sellers of chicken meat beef….who lay 0% emphasis on hyigiene etc….that’s my only doubt…….I am a lover of kerelen cuisine…ate many times but my idea of outing is first to have hyigine then taste

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