How a Yemeni rice dish became Kerala’s favourite biryani

The popularity of Kuzhimanthi biriyani is a nod to Kerala’s historic ties with West Asia.

It’s 12.45 on a hot, humid February afternoon in Kochi. Prashobh stands patiently outside Al Reem restaurant in the heart of the city. “We’re waiting for the Kuzhimanthi biriyani to be ready,” he said. “We’ll be served at exactly 1 o’clock.” He is a marketing executive at a recruitment firm whose office is nearby. “Normally I get so impatient waiting for food. But for this biriyani, I can wait.” Prashobh is one of the thousand customers who will be served between lunchtime and dinner and all of them are here for the Kuzhimanthi biriyani.

With its roots in a classic Yemeni dish – the mandi – the Kuzhimanthi biriyani is all the rage in Kerala. In fact, it is the only dish on the menu of Al Reem at its three branches in and around Kochi. They serve it with mayonnaise, salsa and salathar, or salad, on the side though, in Yemen, it is served with tzatziki, a type of cucumber raita. A plate with a quarter chicken is Rs 140, while one with whole chicken would cost Rs 550.

Chef Kalesh KS, the executive sous chef at a top hotel in Kochi, has had the original version of the dish. “The original mandi – or manthi as we call it in Kerala – is very lightly spiced, although [it is flavoured with] Kerala spices,” he said. “In the Arab world, it’s cooked mostly with lamb, which is first boiled. In that stock the rice is slow cooked, with the lamb hanging down in the pit or tandoor.” He added that the rice is flavoured with cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns, bay leaf, cumin, a bit of coriander powder, a hint of saffron and the star ingredient – whole dried lemons.

Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman
Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

While Kuzhimanthi biriyani has become popular relatively recently, Al Reem opened its first branch in Nedumbassery near the Cochin International airport four years ago. “That was to serve the Arab customers who came to Kerala every June to enjoy the monsoon,” said Babu TC, an owner of the restaurant. “They said the biriyani was close to what they ate back home. In time we grew. Recently, a lot of places have sprung up which serve the dish”. Babu estimates there are more than 250 places in Kochi alone that say they specialise in it.

The word mandi itself comes from the Arabic word nada, meaning dew. “Mandi refers to the dewy texture of the meat,” said Sajir PK, a partner of Babu’s. “It’s moist and falls off the bone. The meat is cooked to a point where its skin is neither too crusty nor too hard. No oil is used in cooking the Kuzhimanthi. It’s slow-cooked for over two hours in a hole in the ground or kuzhy as we call it in Malayalam. The meat, which is either chicken or lamb, is always fresh. This biriyani isn’t dum, which means it isn’t sealed but covered loosely.”

Whole chickens are kept on an iron grill, which is then placed on top of a chembu or a big vessel of rice. “The rice used in the Kuzhimanthi is basmati,” said Sajir. “The juices of the meat trickle down into the rice so it has that flavour.”

Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman
Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

Such a long journey

The story of how the Arabic mandi came to be known as biriyani in Kerala is interesting. Food writer Oneal Sabu said, “Ashraf Ali from Mallapuram in north Kerala worked in Saudi Arabia for years. He came back to Kerala and started set up a restaurant called Spicy Hut in Kottakkal in 2006 where he started selling the Kuzhimanthi. He came up with the brilliant idea of calling it biriyani because of the rice in it. That’s how the Malayali came to accept it as a biriyani in the first place.” Ashraf Ali now owns a restaurant called Malabar Grills in Fort Kochi, which specialises in Arabic food.

A home chef and biriyani expert in Kozhikode, Abida Rasheed lived in Jeddah for a while in the 1980s. Little did she know then that the mandi she ate there would become popular in Kerala one day. She makes Kuzhimanthi biriyani on order and has seen the demand for it rise. Rasheed believes that the reasons are not just culinary but historic and migratory. “The Arabs arrived here for our spices centuries ago,” she said. “Remember also that it was always the men who travelled from the Arabian Peninsula to Kerala. People started lodging them, adapting their food.”

Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman
Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

The Arabs stayed in pandiyashalas or business centers in and around Kozhikode. In time, some families from Yemen, Kuwait and other parts of the Peninsula were given permission to settle in Kerala in the 17th century by the Samoothiri or Zamorin of Calicut. “Later on, the Malayalis started going to the Gulf,” said Rasheed. “Now the Malayali wants to come back from there and enjoy that food here.” (According to a survey conducted in 2016 by Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, 89% of 2.3 million emigrants from Kerala chose to move to the Gulf countries that year.)

Best of both worlds

Sumesh Govind, the owner of the legendary Paragon hotel in Kerala, who has eaten the Kuzhimanthi in Yemen, said, “In the Arabian Peninsula, this dish is quite a specialty. You can’t just make it at home. And that’s because you can’t have a kuzhy or what we call a thanoos in Arabic which is a pit in the ground at home to cook this. The reason it’s cooked that way is because when people travelled in the Arabian desert – from Yemen to the Persian Gulf and Oman to Jordan and Iraq – winds were so strong that the only way to cook was to dig a hole in the sand.”

Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman
Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

“When the kuzhimanthi is cooked in Kerala, we up the spice element for the Malayali palette,” said Chef Kalesh. “[In the original dish] the lamb isn’t marinated because Arabs like a strong taste of the meat. In Kerala, we use chicken and we marinate it. Again, to suit our taste buds.”

For foodies like Zeba and Jithin, who are at Al Reem to eat the biriyani, it’s the ambience just as much as the Kuzhimanthi which has brought them here all the way from Kannur in north Kerala. “We love that there is majlis or family rooms where our families can share one big platter,” said Zeba. “The children can run around and there is laughter. It’s a proper family outing.”

Sumesh has tried Kuzhimanthi up and down the state and his favourite is a place called The White House in Thamarassery, a town about 30 kilometres from Kozhikode. “Malayalis love their food, especially rice dishes,” he said. “The availability of the manthi in Kerala gives the Malayali accessibility to food from another culture.”

There’s a saying in Kerala about how a Malayali knows when the biriyani is cooked. “We believe that cooking 10 kilograms of chicken in a biriyani takes the same amount of time as burning 100 coconut shells – that’s when it’s ready,” Abida said. “As long as we have coconut shells, Malayalis will continue to enjoy the biriyani.”

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