I have always been in the company of good food. My grandmother, Ummi Abdulla, is a fantastic cook and I was fortunate enough to have some of the best food at home all the time. My grandmother is also an expert at Mappila cuisine. She not only made Mappila dishes but also experimented with other cuisines and came up with new recipes. She was always innovating in the kitchen. Because I had such great cooks at home, I never took too much interest in cooking. Even after I got married, I managed with whatever little I knew.
It’s in the last seven years, when I decided to work on the cookbook, that I began to explore the culinary world. ‘A Kitchen Full of Stories’ is a book of stories, recipes and secrets about Mappila cuisine that I put together for my grandmother. Since the work of the book I started to exchange notes with her on how things were done back in the day, tips and tricks that people don’t usually tell you when you cook and so on.
My grandmother is already a published author but her previous cookbook was a small one without any pictures. I wanted to introduce outsiders to the cuisine and make it a visual treat. Many know Kerala cuisine for its usage of coconuts. But different regions have their own food and culture, and Mappila is one of them. It’s essentially the cuisine of the Mappilas, a new culture which came into place when Arab traders came to the state in the early 1500s and married the localities there. So you’ll find plenty of ghee, eggs, bananas and anise seeds in the dishes.
Through the book, my grandmother has shares anecdotes of things in her life. All of them were somehow related to food so they’ll make for a great read. The recipe shared of the ‘Fish Biryani’ is one of her favourites. It’s a fairly simple dish to make and quite flavourful. Make sure you get a larger fish and fry it in the masala before you add it to the rice. If you don’t, the fish will easily break in the cooking process. Don’t over-fry them either.
Method to make Biriyani Masala
Rub the fish in salt, turmeric powder and half of the chilli powder and marinate for about 10 minutes.
Shallow fry the fish in hot oil till it is nicely browned.
Mix poppy seeds with curd and set aside. Soak saffron in the rose water and keep aside.
Heat ghee and fry half of the sliced onions till translucent.
Add the ginger paste, garlic paste and chilli paste and stir fry for a minute or so.
Add coriander powder, remaining half of the chilli powder and salt to taste and mix well. Next, beat the curd mixture with a little water, add to the masala and simmer for a while. Add the fried fish, half of the garam masala powder, lime juice, coriander and mint leaves. Simmer on a low flame, stirring occasionally till the gravy thickens. Remove from fire and keep aside.
Method to prepare the rice
Fry the remaining onions. When the onions turn soft, add the pulao rice.
Heat 5 cups of water and add to the rice. Add salt. When the mixture boils, cover with a lid and let it simmer for about 15–20 minutes. Make sure the rice does not overcook.
For the Dum effect
Assemble the rice and fish alternately. On each layer of fish, sprinkle some of the golden fried onion, garam masala powder and saffron-soaked rose water.
Cover the dish with a tight-fitting lid and place hot coals on top. Then place the dish on a tava on a low flame. Instead of using coals, you can bake the biriyani in an oven for 10 to 15 minutes to get the same dum effect. Garnish with golden fried onions and serve hot.
Note: The rose water is optional. You could use two small tomatoes instead of curd if you prefer it.