In Conversation with Ummi Abdullah: Malabar Food

In Conversation with Ummi Abdullah: Malabar Food

in Interview
Published on: 03 July 2020

Dr Azeez Tharuvana

Dr Azeez Tharuvana is the Head of Department of Malayalam, Farook College, Kozhikode. He has authored several books, including 'Wayanad Traditions of Ramayana'.

Following is the edited transcript of an interview with the culinary expert Ummi Abdullah, conducted by Dr Azeez Tharuvana in Kozhikode in 2017.

Ummi Abdullah is often called the 'matriarch' of Malabari Muslim food. She is one of the early women cookbook authors from the region. Her first book, titled Malabar Muslim Cookery, was published in 1981. In this conversation with Azeez Tharuvana, she talks about her culinary experiments and interactions with writer Vaikom Muhammad Basheer who appreciated her food skills and even wrote a charming foreword to one of her cookbooks.

Azeez Tharuvana (AT): You spent your childhood in Thalassery, a place that can perhaps be called the capital of Malabar cuisine.

Ummi Abdullah (UA): It would be wrong to say that. Though I was born there I grew up in Thikkodi and then moved to Kozhikode.

AT: You got married at the age of 15, didn’t you?

UA: Yes. You could say it was even before I reached 15 years of age.

AT: Where was your husband V. Abdullah from?

UA: V. Abdullah was my elder maternal uncle’s son. He also was from Vaidyarakam, Thikkodi. My father’s ancestral home was at Vaidyarakam. So was his. So there were a lot of connections. But he had been in Madras (Chennai) for a long time. And, I came to Kozhikode from Thikkodi after the fifth grade. There, I studied for one or two years at the Providence School and after that at St. Joseph’s.

AT: When did you get into cooking?

UA: Like I said, when I got married I was very young. Back then I didn’t know how to make tea let alone cook. It was not necessary either. We lived as a joint family. Till I got married, I was staying with my younger aunt (elemma) in Kozhikode and going to school from there. My mother and others were in Thikkodi. So it was elemma who was here (in Kozhikode). It was a big joint family. So there was no need for me to cook. Even after my marriage, we used to stay there. Only after the birth of our second child, we moved to a separate house in Kozhikode. From then onwards, I was on my own and had to cook. He (husband) knew many literary figures. He would invite all of them home. We had to serve them good food. But I had no problem. I had good cooks who were familiar with traditional recipes. So if I was told suddenly that these many people would be coming over for lunch, it would not bother me. Thus I learned cooking from them in this way. So, Basheer (Vaikom Muhammad Basheer) would come and have food. Basheer, M.T. (Vasudevan Nair), Thikkodiyan, many people like that, all those literary figures, all of them would come to our house. My husband was also the president of several cultural associations (Kalasamiti) and was involved in other activities as well. So there would always be many people visiting and having food with us. After a while, he moved to Chennai. He produced three movies like Ammaye Kaanan, Aadyakiranangal and Shyamalachechi. Afterwards when he joined Orient Longman, all of us moved to Chennai. Also, my son, who was deaf and mute, had to get into a special school in Chennai. It was then that I started learning cooking in a big way. I was ignorant of many things. So my husband would tell me to attend classes on how to make juices, jams, etc. I also did diploma courses from the Government Catering College in Food Preserving and Planning, Cooking and Baking, etc.

Then my husband said now that you have learned to make pickles, we could start a pickle production line. There was a large shed on the ground floor of where we were living. So I started a production centre there. At that time, it was not very difficult to get a license. So we took the license and it all worked out very well. We used to sell bottled pickles to five-star hotels. So it went on for a while, running a production line with two or three workers. My brother used to take care of its accounts. He was also working with Orient Longman. So that worked for a while. When he got transferred, my husband said he would not be able to manage the accounts and we had to surrender the license. However, even after the license was surrendered, the hoteliers insisted that I continued to supply them the pickles. So I did that for a while.  

AT: What sort of pickles were these?

UA: It was vegetarian—mainly lime, mango, etc. And then there was something called cocktail onion. It is something that is served with alcohol in five star hotels. I supplied about 30 or 40 bottles per month even after the license was surrendered. Food items without label would create problem at the time of inspection, but still they needed my pickles. After a while I stopped it and moved to catering. After my daughters got married and left, there wasn’t much work at home and so I started taking orders for food. Then the five-star hotels would invite me as a food consultant. I had been to different places from Madras to Kochi, Bangalore, Mangalore, etc.

AT: How old were you at this time?

UA: All this started when I was around 45 years old and went on till I was about 60 or so. I have gone to many such places. And, outside of India too. Places like Vietnam. I had a cousin there. He had a hotel. So he invited me there for their Kerala Food Festival.

AT: Where?

UA: Vietnam. Hanoi.

AT: So what did you do there?

UA: So when I went, I took my younger daughter with me to assist me. It was a good experience. It was the first time I had gone abroad for this purpose, I mean. It was Kerala Food Festival. That includes Mappila (Malabar) food. But the pathiris (a sort of rice pancake) was not there. All the curries were there. Then there were snacks like bonda, and other vegetarian items, as starters and kozhi ada, etc. But communication was a problem as they didn’t know English. Only the Master Chef knew English. So I had some difficulty communicating in the kitchen. But once explained they would pick up very fast. For all of those ten days, I did not meet a single Indian there. There were a few small difficulties in the kitchen. For example, they would not understand the word puli (tamarind). No one could understand it. Finally, I went to the market myself and bought it. Then everyone started laughing. I asked them what the matter was. Then they pointed it out to me. There, outside, in the yard, were three tamarind trees. They didn’t know its name in English.

AT: What was your role there? Teaching them?

UA: Yes, I was. I had to cook certain items also. More than that, I had to oversee what they were cooking.

And I had taken cookery classes at many places from Kannur to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). Mrs Mathew (Mrs. K.M. Mathew, founder chief editor of Vanitha and cookbook author) was a very good friend of mine. I stayed at her place in Kottayam for three days and conducted cookery classes.   

AT: What were the items that you taught?

UA: Mostly it was biryani. Particularly Thalasserry biryani. Then varieties of pathiris like podipathiri, aripathiri, neypathiri, meen pathiri, etc. It was different abroad. They asked for biryani, of course, but not pathiris.  And then curries.

AT: What sort of curries?

UA: Curries of chicken, mutton, etc., and then different snacks. All those would be there.

AT: How did you come to be an author?

UA: After I was done with my pickling production, my husband said: ‘Now that you are free, write a cookery book.’ I said, ‘Write a book! Allah! I can’t do all that.’ He assured me saying: ‘Write in your own language. I will take care of the rest’. But for that, you need exact measures of the ingredients. I never really saw my umma (mother) cook. She had ten children, so she was always busy taking care of them. Ummamma (grandmother) was in charge of the kitchen. I had a habit since when I was young. I would stand and watch whenever someone was cooking. I would observe grandmother cooking for special functions like weddings or feasts at home. Grandmother’s specialty was kayada (a dish made of plantain). She would not let anybody near her when she was making it. She would not let anyone inside. But I would be with her, and help her in small ways like peeling the bananas. She liked that. So, for me, since childhood, observing someone cook was a very enjoyable thing. Like when I was living at Thikkodi, there one is supposed to send varieties of snacks to the bride’s home after the wedding. To make those they would call experts in making such snacks—appakarathis. When they cooked I would sit and observe them. I would observe such grand-scale cooking events whenever they happened. In the past, at my aunt (elamma)’s home, there would be dinners for foreigners. I used to enjoy watching the butler make items like cutlets, etc.

AT: This was during the British period, wasn’t it?

UA.: Yes. I enjoyed watching all that. So maybe I had an inherent inclination for cooking. So, when my husband asked me to write I came down to meet ummamma. I asked her, ‘Ummamma, how do we make biriyani? What is the proportion of meat to rice?’ But, measurements meant nothing for ummamma! She would say: ‘What do I say, daughter? You need about two kg of meat for a nazhi (a measure) rice. Then a handful of that and a handful of this.’ She never depended on textbook measurements for cooking. I went back to Madras and decided I needed to measure out each and every ingredient. So my husband got the weighing machine and I weighed each ingredient, wrote it down and formed an estimate. That is how I first started to write.

AT: You wrote in English, didn’t you?

UA: Yes, first in English for Orient Longman. Now the name is changed to Orient Blackswan. In the first book, there were only old recipes, sourced from old people at my native place. Those old helps would know about the ancient recipes. But I would not get the measurements from them. I had to figure them out myself and had to check whether those measurements were accurate. So I would ask my sister-in-law and others to make the dishes according to the measures I gave. With their inputs, I finally got the exact measurements. My elder sister was a very good cook. Her name was Aasi. She passed away three years ago. She was the one who first taught me how to make meat curry.

AT: So, how did the readers receive the first book?

UA: It was very well received, especially by the young people who went abroad. Even young men appreciated it very much. Even now people tell me they started cooking with this book that they had kept safe at home like a dictionary. The first book was received well. The second book is not just on Mappila cuisine, it has everything.

AT: What is its title?

UA: Epicure Cook Book. In Malayalam it is called Vishishtapachakam. I had won many prizes for the recipes that I published in magazines like Femina, Newsweek, etc. I incorporated all those recipes in this book and my experiments as well.

AT: Have you invented recipes of your own?

UA: Yes. They are there in this second book. My husband asked me to translate it to Malayalam. I did that too. It was not difficult. Thus I wrote two books in English, and the third one, a translation of my second book into Malayalam. My husband would tell me what all to do. He said there were no good recipe books in Malayalam for juices, jams and pickles. So I wrote that one also while he was alive. Three books were published. DC published all of them. I am not sure. Maybe somebody else published one of them. Anyway, I had just started with the fourth book when he fell ill. In the years after he passed away, I wrote and published three more books. Malabar Pachakarivibhavangal (Malabar vegetarian dishes), Ruchiyerum Vibhavangal (Tasty Dishes) by Lead Publications, and a small book two years back called Puttukal Currykal (Puttu and curries). Thus, I have written six books in total.

AT: The Malayali reader is quite familiar with Ummi Abdullah and not just through cookbooks. Basheer has written witty anecdotes involving you and, similarly, other writers like M.T. (Vasudevan Nair), too, have written about you. How did your acquaintance with writers come about, especially with Basheer?

UA: My husband was a very close friend of Basheer's. Whenever he visited Kozhikode from Madras, he made it a point to meet Basheer. They had been friends from long before. Remember the Basheer play Ntuppuppakkoranendarnnu (My Grandfather Had an Elephant), it was my husband who brought Basheer from Vaikom to Kozhikode and put him up at Pottekkad’s house ‘Chandrakantham’ to write it. We arranged a servant too who bought things for him. It was during this time that his anecdote about my cooking came out. As it was during this time that he tasted my food. Then, they got him married. It was all these friends, like Abdul Rahiman Sahib, my husband, etc., who took the initiative for that. I, too, had gone to see the prospective bride for the first time.

AT: Tell us about that. Basheer got married very late, like when he was around 48 or 50 years of age. So you had gone to see the girl before the wedding?

UA: Basheer had seen her and everything was fixed before we went to see her. Mullavettil Abdul Rahman had a brother, Dr Mahmoud. His daughter and I went to see the prospective bride. After the wedding, the bride was brought to our place. Then they went to ‘Chandrakantam’.

AT: The foreword that Basheer wrote for your cookbook became very famous, didn’t it?

UA: Now it is used by everyone. Lead Publications also have used it in my Ruchiyerum Vibhavangal. There are people who buy the book just to read the foreword.

AT: Like you, Basheer also was an expert cook.

UA: True. When he stayed here, it was our servant who used to get things for him. He wanted kudampuli (kokum) for his fish curry. I had not used kokum till then. My help did not know where to find it. He came to see me and asked: ‘Where shall we get kudampuli from?’ I said I didn’t know. Finally, we got it from the local traditional medical shop. At that time, I did not know to make fish curry with kudampuli. Now I use it. I am still continuing my experiments.

AT: You have invented many new recipes. Could you give us a count of your own recipes?

UA: That is difficult to say. Now, I have a slight problem with my eyesight. So I only cook when there is no one else. Otherwise, I instruct the servant and supervise the cooking.

AT: Your roots are in Thalassery even though you grew up in Kozhikode. Even in some books or songs as far back in the 1870s in Thalassery there are allusions of more than a hundred dishes. The number must have only grown since then. Biryani and porotta and its versions were not there in the beginning. For you, what defines the particular character of Thalassery or Kuttichira food?

UA: If you take Thalassery biryani, for instance, the number of ingredients needed is very less. But Kozhikode biryani has a lot of ingredients. In south Kerala, they put all sorts of things in biryani. But it is not as tasty as the Thalassery biryani. Thalassery biryani is very simple and easy to make. It is very tasty too. When I was in Madras, we would have Urdu biryani from the Urdu traditions. It is completely different. It is very easy to make and also has very few ingredients. Ours has (more) masala (spices). The rice will be all boiled and mixed together. But it is tasty. I have found that easy to make. I have always felt that Thalassery biryani is the best, both in taste and in the ease of cooking. Take pathiris. What we call pathiri in Thalassery they call it orotti. In Kozhikode it becomes pathiri. When you go towards Wayanad side, you find differences in names and recipes.

AT: When we talk of Thalassery food, it is very rich and diverse with many dishes made of eggs. How did Thalassery or for that matter Malabar come to have a wide variety of food? 

UA: Take egg items, for instance. There are many varieties of payasams (kheer), isn’t it? So like payasam, among us Muslims, especially in Thalassery, the speciality is to make items using either eggs or bananas. I think, in the past, these must be the things that were more available in the region.

AT: Don’t you use coconut also?

UT: Yes, coconut too. Most of our items will have coconut and egg. We don’t have a large number of desserts. There are many snacks, but not desserts. In my book Malabar Cuisine, the deserts mentioned are very few. But there are many recipes for snacks—both sweet and spicy ones.

AT: Thalassery and Kuttichira in Kozhikode are places where the marumakkathaya (matrilineal) system and putiapla (new bridegroom) system exist. Could you talk about the putiapla feasting? 

UT: Yes. It is a big thing in Thalassery and Kannur. In earlier times, after the wedding, the bridegroom came and stayed at the bride’s home. The bride would not go to the groom’s house. So the husband would be living in the girl’s place. When he came at night to the bride’s place, there would be a grand dinner prepared for him. This would include a great variety of pathiris, chicken curry, mutton, goat’s head and liver. And this was not just for one night. At least for eight days, earlier it was forty days, the bridegroom would be fed like this at night. The breakfast too would be grand with many kinds of pathiris, kanjis (rice gruel) and sweet dishes like unnakkaya, kozhiada, etc. Earlier the feasting happened for 40 days and the bridegroom would bring his friends along with him for the dinner.

AT: But how do the poor manage to provide such an elaborate feast? 

UA: Those who cannot manage elaborate feats would serve either a chicken dish or a fried chicken. At least one item like that will be there. People from economically lower status usually have just kanji but they would definitely serve pathiri and chicken curry, if not beef curry or fried chicken.

AT: After all these elaborate feasts, the bridegroom would put on weight by the end of the forty days.

UA: The bridegroom is not served fish during these forty days. He will be given meat, chicken, beef, brain, head, all such items, but not fish. On the 41st day, he has to buy fish for his bride’s family. That signifies the end of feasting. But all that was many years back. At the time of my wedding, the feasting happened for eight days.

AT: Traditional cuisines are well-balanced. In the present times, a fast-food culture has set in. How do you view this trend of fast-food culture?

UA: I cannot agree with fast food culture. Okay, one can go out and have it occasionally but not always. First of all, it is not good for your health. And it doesn’t suit our bodies too. The food that we cook agrees with the stomach. Even something as simple as pathiri and curry is not harmful to our digestion. Even rice for that matter. So I don’t think fast food is a great thing. One can perhaps have it for a change once in a while.

AT: The culture of going to restaurants to eat was not there when you were young, wasn’t it?

UA: No, it was not there. For weddings, one would put up a marquee at home itself. The houses were big. Now things are different. Earlier, one would not invite many guests. Only the relatives and people from the neighbourhood would be invited. This was especially so in Thikkodi. Weddings used to be a simple affair. The landed gentry would arrange for a feast for people from the neighbourhood. Food would be simple and consist of ghee rice, one curry and probably a fried item. If it was beef curry, there would be chicken fry and vice-versa. That was all. Also, there would be a chutney. For the wedding on the next day, there would not be many guests. So you could attend to them properly. Food would be kept simple. Sometimes biryani would be there. Nowadays, if there is biryani, there will be a lot of items like pathiri, neypathiri, muttasurka, etc. Earlier none of those were there. Weddings used to be very simple and not crowded events.

AT: When one thinks of Basheer, it is his humour that comes first to mind. Basheer had talked about having food at your house. After lunch, he wished to see the cook, and a beautiful woman came out of the kitchen. Basheer wondered if he could kidnap her.  Do you remember all this?

UA: Oh, I remember it very well. I can even picture the scene in my mind. At that time we both were living on rent in Kozhikode. The dining room was very small. Basheer had visited and they were having food, and when he wanted to see the cook, my husband called out for me. (In those times Muslim women would not come out of their quarters when there were male visitors). That was when I saw Basheer in person for the first time. I knew him only through his works. I had read all his stories. So, in the morning my husband, before he left for work, asked me to cook fish biryani as there would be guests for lunch. I didn’t know how to make it but I had domestic help. She didn’t turn up that day. We had a male servant helping with things outside the house. He brought fish from the market. There was a young girl to help me out. She listed some ingredients that go into fish biriyani but I couldn’t make any head or tail out of it. Sensing the dilemma, he said he knew an old lady who could help us. He went by bus and brought that person back with him. She cooked the fish biryani and left. And at lunch, her biryani was appreciated very much by everyone. I didn’t reveal who the cook was at the time. Then my husband asked me at night: 'Who actually made this biryani? Was it really you?' That was when the lie came to light.