Malabar Muslim cuisine doyenne Ummi Abdulla's new cookbook has been seven years in the making
It’s my dream come true!” says Ummi Abdulla, the doyenne of Malabar Muslim cuisine as she looks at a lifetime of recipes collected in a limited-edition coffee table book released earlier this month. In conversation with Nazaneen Jalaludheen, her grand-daughter, she tells us how they cooked up a grand collection of recipes flavoured by mouth-watering stories from Ummi’s childhood in a small village named Thikkody, near Calicut.
“My grandmother Ummi’s first book Malabar Muslim Cookery was inspired by my grandfather,
V Abdulla,” explains Nazaneen. “He was a publisher working with Orient Longman, as it was known at the time. He had made a name for himself by bringing out the work of well-known writers in Malayalam into English. He had a passion for literature as well as for good food. He was the one who encouraged my grand-mother to put it all in writing.”
“As far as I know it was the first book of its kind on Moplah cookery,” adds Ummi. “It’s still in print.” She explains that though the core of the book consisted of typical North Malabar Muslim recipes, she also innovated with a few of the dishes. Even more so after they came to Chennai. “My husband was always interested in buying new gadgets for the kitchen so I could experiment with them.”
Having eaten at their home when Mr Abdulla was still alive I can vouch for some of her finely layered and baked dishes. Some of them like the thin rice-based pathiris were enveloped with freshly fried slices of fish. Others were like a Kerala version of lasagna. She undertook a course of training at the Madras Institute of Catering. She soon became famous for her home-made squashes and fruit cordials.
“I used to supply all the cocktail onions that the five-star hotels required in those days,” she says. The house was never without someone sitting and peeling mounds of tiny onions, blanching them and putting them into bottles. Soon she found herself in great demand by restaurants catering for the demand for regional recipes.
In her first book, she explains how the term mapilla often anglicised as Moplah indicated a term of respect for the son-in-law or Maha Pillai. In many cases, these were the Arabs who came to Kerala to trade for pepper and spices and married the local young women. “My grand-mother is a great storyteller,” continues Nazaneen. She spent a part of her schooldays at Chennai with her grandparents. “When we decided to produce a larger book, I thought why not include the stories of her childhood. It’s a way of life that is now forgotten.”
“It took seven years for us to do this book that was published by crowdfunding,” explains Nazaneen who is a software professional with her own family. “Yes, even my husband who is from Kashmir loves eating my grand-mother’s culinary marvels.”
A Kitchen Full of Stories is available online. Price: Rs 1,500.