As lakhs of Muslims break their Ramzan fast with iftaar meals across India, there’s one region where the menu is strikingly distinct from that in the rest of the country. The Muslim community in Malabar, in the northern districts of Kerala, boasts of a unique cuisine that even today shows telltale signs of Arab influence carried across time.

Ask for a Sulaymani in any tea shop in Malabar, stretching from Kozhikode to Kasargod, and you’ll get sweet black tea with lemon. The name is believed to have been lent to this simple drink by the Sulaymani Bohras (Sulaymanis), a Musta’lī Ismaili community from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Step into the dining room of any traditional Mappilla (Muslim) home in Malabar at meal times and chances are that you’ll be enticed by the rich and inviting aroma of mandi, a distant cousin of the biryani. Said to be the traditional dish of Hadhramaut and Sana’a areas in Yemen, the mandi among the relatively unknown delicacies found on Malabar dining tables.

A mixture of rice, spices and chicken or lamb, the mandi is made in an oven in the ground tiled with clay bricks. The rice, spices and water are cooked in this oven, while wood coals are placed on top to make sure that steam doesn’t escape. The coal is also used to add the extra smokey flavour to the meat which too is cooked in this oven. Care is taken to use the meat of a young goat, which is tenderer than regular mutton.

“This dish is little known outside Kerala but it is an extraordinarily popular item in Malabar,” said Muhammed Seedi, managing director of the Whitehouse group of restaurants, which has the dish on its menu. “It has to be cooked for at least two and a half hours for the flavours to seep in.”

Mandi is said to be a corruption of the Arabic word “nada”, which means “dew”. The name is an allusion to the tenderness of the meat.

Adapted with local ingredients

“The influence is not just limited to Yemen,” said Ammini Ramachandran, Texas-based author and food writer. “Alissa, a wheat, meat and cinnamon porridge, is similar to harisa, a recipe preserved over centuries by the people of the Middle East. Recipes for this dish are found in 10th century Baghdadi cookbooks Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen, Sufi Cuisine as well as in the Iraqi cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden. In medieval Baghdad, it was called ‘hareesi’. Even today, the dish is served in Turkey, [where] it goes by the name ‘herise’, while in Lebanon it’s called ‘ hreessey’.”

She added: “The cuisine was adapted with local ingredients. Take for example ‘ari pathiri’, a thin chapati made out of rice flour. Rice being the staple grain in the region, breads and rotis were alien to the local food habits. The women innovated what they had in hand and made bread with rice powder for their Arabian paramours, who were used to a bread-based diet.”

Even the Malabar biryani, one of the key stars of any iftaar table, has a distinct Arabian touch. The rice and the meat are cooked separately and then layered and cooked. “Biriyani ustads”, who specialise in making this dish, are hired to cook it for weddings, special occasions and iftaars. Other dishes, meanwhile, are rustled up by the “pandaaris”, who hold the position of executive chefs.

“The Mappilas were extremely hospitable people, and would share their food with everyone in the neighbourhood,” said Sumesh Govind, managing director of Kozhikode-based Paragon Group of Hotels. “Subsequently, Malabar biryani became a staple in Hindu Thiyya homes as well, especially in the Thalasserry area. So much so that it’s also called Thalasserry biriyani.”

Malabar or Thalasserry biriyani is served with date pickle, raita and coconut chammanthi (chutney), again a fusion of West Asia and Kerala.

Influenced over the ages

Local produce such as mussels have also found their way onto iftaar tables. Ari kadukka, or rice-coated mussels, are among the favourites.

Another iftaar speciality said to have roots in West Asia is the dessert – muttamala or necklace of eggs. Thin filaments of egg yolk are cooked in sweet sugar syrup served over Pinnanathappam, steam-cooked cardamom-scented egg white pudding.

The influence of the Arabs lingers on in this and many other Malabar Mappila dishes.

Muslims or Mappilas tended to congregate more in the Malabar region because of the patronage from the local leaders. Subsequently, Malabar Mappila culture and cuisine came to have an identity of its own.

“The area we know as Kerala today was trading with merchants from West Asia from pre- Mohammedian times,” noted Dr K Gopalankutty, retired head of the history department at the University of Calicut. “After the Roman Empire collapsed, traders from Assyria, Babylon and Egypt as well as the Phoenicians and Arabs dominated this market, some even eventually mingling and marrying into the local population.”

By the 7th century, Muslim traders visited the southern coast of Malabar and shared their culture as they sold their wares.

Well before Abu Fazl wrote about how dozens of master cooks whipped up delicacies for the imperial Mughal kitchens of Akbar in his Ain-i-Akbari, the south western coast of India was already breaking fasts with culinary delights based on recipes brought across the seas from West Asia.

Over 2,000 years after they sailed to southern India, the legacy of these peaceful traders of West Asia continues to live on in the cuisine of Malabar.