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 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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.