Abida Rasheed is in her living room, but her eyes are on her kitchen. “You have to teach people how to do things right,” she said, shouting out instructions to her daughter on how not to over-brew the coffee. “Anything overdone or underdone won’t do – it’s all about the balance.”

Rasheed is a Calicut native, and one of Kerala’s best-known home chefs. A member of the state’s Malabar Muslim community – also known as the Mappilas, or Moplahs – her mission is to tell the story of its cuisine. While Kerala is home to some of the country’s most celebrated kitchens, it has great diversity within itself, which is not a fact that is as well-known as it perhaps should be. In her kitchen, Rasheed battles this homogenisation of Malayali food by introducing diners to Mappila cuisine, which, she believes, deserves its own spot in the limelight.

“There’s the Syrian Christian community, which was influenced by the Dutch style of cooking – they make thick, starchy stews,” she said. “There’s Nadaan food, which is spicy, oily and more ‘going-out food’. Then there’s Mappila food. It’s full of Arab influences but we use local Kerala ingredients.”

Mappila women in Kerala (1901). Photo credit: USC Digital library/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Mappila women in Kerala (1901). Photo credit: USC Digital library/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Islam arrived in Kerala through commerce. Muslim merchants from the Arab world voyaged across the sea to the Malabar Coast to trade in pepper, cardamom and coconut oil. And as they began to settle in the region, their marriage into local families gave rise to the word Mappila – which means son-in-law in Tamil. Today, the Mappila food belt extends from Kannur to Calicut, forming a large branch of Kerala cuisine and “belongs to the Muslim communities that live in the Northern part of the state. The Kerala chayakada, or tea shop, is also a tradition brought by the traders”.

Mappila dining is still characterised by many customs from Arab culture – fried snacks, subtle spices and biryani made the Yemeni way. Additionally, while the rest of Kerala uses coconut oil as a cooking base, Mappila cooking uses ghee, a tradition they borrowed from the Arab Bedouins. “A usual Mappila meal is quite lavish, but also simple,” said Rasheed. “Different kinds of pathiris [rice-flour bread], unnakaya [a dish made with fried bananas], many kinds of sweets, and most importantly, the biryani are the main components.” Since Mappila cuisine was born during the spice trade, several dishes are odes to Indian spices, using them in careful measure, and never in excess.

In the family

“Among the Mappilas, like in all merchant communities, hospitality is taken very seriously,” Rasheed said. “Our house would always be full of guests, or clients of my grandfather and father, and we would keep busy cooking for them.”

Rasheed began to cook as a young girl, watching her grandmother in the kitchen and learning from her. After she was married, her home kitchen became her universe, in which she experimented with recipes to cater to her husband’s clients. “He used to bring clients home, and that was a very important part of our business,” she said. “I used to be very involved in these matters, and cook up meals, I think many of the deals were struck because of my food.”

Everything she cooks can be traced back to her Mappila roots – ulli vadas, which are onion vadas fried to a crisp; a muringa curry made with drumsticks that have been simmered in spices for a long time; and the Kozhi biryani, in which chicken and rice is stewed to moist perfection and garnished with dried fruits. One of her favourite dishes is irachi pathiri, in which two rice flour rotis are stuffed with meat, vegetables, and fried by dipping in an egg. A household delicacy, the irachi pathiri is a characteristic mix of sweet and savoury flavours.

Rasheed’s approach to cuisine is not only to present to diners the variety of foods in her repertoire, but also to recreate the traditions of the Mappila table. “Among Mappila Muslims, breakfast is a big deal. Typically, we eat dishes like thala curry, a goat-head curry for breakfast, but the meal is so large, it would also be lunch,” she said. “These meals are extensive, sensory experiences – and have to be experienced the way they were created.”

Star campaigner

Rasheed made her first foray into the professional kitchen in 2004, with a stint at the Taj Malabar Resort in Cochin. “It was like a chef’s mother had entered their kitchen,” she said. “They were all so surprised, I didn’t want to use any of the gadgets, and I just wanted to cook like I did at home.”

Since then, Rasheed has collaborated with professional chefs like Naren Thimmaiah at The Gateway Hotel, Bengaluru, and been a consultant at the kitchens of the Taj Group throughout South India. She also caters for private events. Her participation in food festivals at The Park, Chennai, and collaborations with Chef Thimmaiah have led to an interest in Mappila foods.

But while it is exciting for her to introduce her techniques to high-end hotels, her favourite way to share a Mappila experience is by hosting tour groups and guiding them through the intricacies of the cuisine. “For groups that visit, I organise daylong tours that include trips to the market, sourcing natural and local ingredients and then cooking the slow, traditional way,” Rasheed said. “I want people who come to Kerala to able to immerse themselves in things other than a trip to the beach, or a visit to Cochin.”

What sets Rasheed apart is her devotion to the old ways that reflect in Mappila foods. On all occasions – be it food festivals, or working with chefs in a restaurant – she personally introduces diners to the different facets of their meal. “In hotels and restaurants, the idea [is] to eat huge quantities of food. Everything is excessive. Home cooking has all the key elements to a meal. You have to smell, taste, feel – and not skim on any part of the experience. Even when I cook for large numbers, I organise set menus, use fresh ground spices, less oil, and keep the feel of home cooking intact.”

Empowerment through food

Last year, Rasheed was included in a list of cultural entrepreneurs by Kudumbasree – a women empowerment programme run by the Kerala government – alongside environmentalist Vandana Shiva and author Khadija Mumtaz. She was honoured as an artist who uses the medium of food to spread awareness about her culture.

Like many women of her generation, Rasheed has preserved heirloom recipes which have been passed down over decades. A proud Mappila, she believes that history and traditions can be preserved through food. “Being in the kitchen is empowering,” she said. “It can teach you things – make you realise that food is a good way to express and create.”

She intends to empower other women in the same manner as she has been, through food. When Rasheed is invited to participate in food festivals across India, she asks other women of the Mappila community to set up their stalls – “I tell them, I will decide the menu, I will set the prices and deal with the customers, now you just cook. I always say to them that cooking is not an ordinary gift. You don’t have to go anywhere else looking for [empowerment], when it’s just sitting there in your kitchen.”