Tea is company

Sulaimani tea belongs to the Malabar region’s social fabric to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if someone from there said they created the brew

Sulaimani chai

An old man and his grandson sit on a pier with glasses of amber-hued Sulaimani in their hands, the steam wafting out to merge with the salty air of the sea. For those who have seen the movie Ustad Hotel – an ode to all things Kozhikode, this image has come to behold the essence of the humble Sulaimani, that of bonding and warmth.

With the Nipah scare settling before Eid, life has returned to its normal pace in many parts of the district. The stories of Malabar, known for its affable people, cuisine and Sulaimani, is best heard from an expert. So on a late evening left refreshed by the monsoon rain, I sit at N.P. Hafiz Mohamad’s house in Kozhikode, eager to hear what the popular author and sociologist has to say. “How about some Sulaimani?” his wife asks and I nod ‘Yes’. An opportunity to taste the ubiquitous drink in its authenticity from a household in the city was not to be missed.

There’s the sharp tang of lime as I take my first sip. “It has always been like this, either with lime or at the most, cardamom. Everything else that is served as Sulaimani are recent additions,” Hafiz says with the slightest annoyance. From unlimited servings of the beverage at Muslim weddings to coming across timber workers relaxing with glasses of Sulaimani and a game of cards along the Kallai river bank during their night shift in the 60s, the stories come undone. “I would be returning home after having downed glasses of black tea or coffee myself while sitting with my writings through the night. Those at Kallai, known for its flourishing timber trade then, would be workers on their second shift. There were eateries there that remained a popular hangout for men to socialize over Sulaimani. I remember having Sulaimani infused with cardamom at marriages in wealthy households when I was a boy. It was a matter of pride at such ceremonies. Seating made of plaited straw would be arranged specially for the groom and his party. There would be a lot of fuss around the placement of the dishes. On such occasions, the Sulaimani was also a major element. I doubt if anyone can beat the people from the Malabar coastal belt when it comes to hospitality.” The Sulaimani has become a part of the region’s social fabric, to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if someone from these parts said they created the drink.

For a drink that was never indigenous to the state, Kerala without chai, in whatever variation, is now unthinkable. An addiction introduced by the English, Hafiz says tea was the result of plans gone awry. “In Kerala, tea plantations first came to Wayanad. Going by the Book of Genesis, the English surmised that the Malabar port Beypore must be the wealthy port Ophir from where expensive wood like sandalwood and teak, ivory and gold were procured for King Solomon. But Wayanad seemed the only place where gold could also be found and so, mining began, with 42 companies registering in England and four in India. This was between 1872 and 97,” notes Hafiz, who retired as the head of department of Sociology at Farook College in the city. “In their failure to find gold, I assume that tea came up as a possibility in Wayanad too, given the fertility of the soil and climatic conditions, and not just in North East India. Tea came to Munnar only after it did in Wayanad. Efforts to popularize the drink also led to the sahib becoming a salesman, as an Englishman distributed cups of tea at Mananchira grounds in Kozhikode and as mentioned in a book by Kerala’s former Chief Minister, the late C. Achutha Menon, at Thrissur Round. “

Hafiz says there are no definite Arab roots to the Sulaimani chai. Moplah Muslims (called Mappilla locally) present in Kozhikode andMalappuram called it kattan chaya or verum chaya. In the central Travancore region, it was theyla vellam (literally meaning tea water). Most importantly, in its early days, the drink was meant to kick start one’s mornings.

So what did Malayalis drink before the advent of tea? “Now we have the metre chai and what not, but before that we had drinks like sambaram and for a hot beverage, the chukkukaapi and its many variations.” Indeed, there’s nothing like ground spices with a helping of jaggery, boiled and served in a mug to warm the soul during the monsoons to keep the common cold away. Eventually, jaggery made way for white sugar and as milk was abundantly available, it was added to tea while the aroma of coffee synced well with spices to form chukkukaapi.

For someone who quit drinking tea 20 years ago, Hafiz still remains loyal to what constitutes good tea. “It isn’t just about boiling tea powder in water. I can tell even now by the scent if it has come out well. While coffee can still be had, unless extremely bitter, tea cannot be compromised on.”

In the olden days, Malabar Muslims liked to round off a heavy meal of biryani or ghee rice with a serving of kattan chai. “It was meant to provide a change of taste rather than to aid digestion. The Moplahs being spice masters served it with cardamom. No one had to teach them that,” he says. Ironically, in some parts of the district, like Kuttichira, it is considered embarrassing to offer guests tea without milk, the latter being a sign of affluence.

The word Sulaimani,” he goes on, “was introduced to Malayalis by legendary novelist Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer.” As a personality whose ways were embraced quickly by the Malayali folk, Basheer’s contributions, probably unintended, have been numerous: the mangosteen tree under whose shade he sat to write, the reclining chair, the kolambi or brass spittoon, his favourite song, the Hindi lullaby Soja Raja Kumari, the Sulaimani that his guests were served... “This is the influence that only a legendary writer can have. The mangosteen has always been in Kerala but it took for Basheer to make it popular. Just like Bhargavi Nilayam, the haunted house he wrote about became a concept, the Sulaimani chai came to mean more than just regular kattan chai.”

Hafiz, author of three books including one on Gulf migrants, says Basheer first makes mention of the word in his works during the time when this movement in search of greener pastures was at its strongest. “Sulaimani does not make an appearance in any of his letters or books before that. Migration to the UAE started from the 60s, became stronger by the 70s and peaked by the 80s by which time people were also going to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. ‘Sulaimani’ could be a reference he picked from a ‘Gulf Malayali’.” Hafiz warns that the tea consumed by Arabs is too concentrated for the Malayali palate which is probably how the lighter version, with sugar came about followed by variants in lime or cardamom. Karak chai, for ‘kadak’ or strong, is commonly available in cafeterias that spot the nooks of every neighbourhood in the GCC countries, mostly run by Malayalis.

How the name Sulaimani came about is still anyone’s guess. Hafiz laughs, saying it isn’t Sulaiman the prophet or King Solomon for sure. “Maybe it was prepared by a chap called Sulaiman and the name stuck. That would be my wildest guess. With the influence of Ustad Hotel, it is more popular than before.” He likes to think of a ‘Basheerian’ concept in the movie as well when it comes to what constitutes the perfect Sulaimani. The role of the grandfather as mentor, he adds, is a reminder of the novelist and the air of benevolence about Basheer.

Sumesh Govind, third-generation owner of Kozhikode’s famous Paragon restaurant, established in 1939, says the Sulaimani was a drink that was waiting to be discovered. “It took someone like Anjali Menon and Anwar Rasheed (director of the film) to give it new life. Sulaimani is just tea in hot water but not everything in life has to be complicated to be so heartwarming right? I am a romantic at heart and like they say, everyone can give you black tea but one sip is all it takes to tell if it has been made with ‘muhabath’.”

The secret ingredient, as revealed by the aged and wise Kareem, played to perfection by late actor Thilakan, in Ustad Hotel, is ‘muhabath’ or love - something Anjali Menon, who wrote the endearing story, says is necessary to experience anything fully, even if it is a glass of Sulaimani. In between wrapping up her latest film Koode, the director says while writing the story for Ustad Hotel, she was looking for something that would be a bonding element between the grandfather-grandson duo as a metaphor for love. “The Sulaimani was something that could be experienced alike across generations, and had to do with the experience of taste. Sulaimani, like love, has elements of sweet and sour that makes it a heady concoction.”

Sumesh calls it an all-time favourite drink. Countless tinkling glasses of Sulaimani make their way out of Paragon’s kitchens (the restaurant has branches in Kerala and UAE), for patrons who have tucked into the restaurant’s popular biryani. “A Sulaimani calls for being enjoyed sip-by-sip for it is like liquid gold, telling a lot about the person who makes it.”

Sulaimani also lent its name to a now defunct food programme under the Compassionate Kozhikode scheme in the city three years ago initiated by ex-collector Prashanth Nair. Operation Sulaimani was initiated to ensure that no person went hungry for want of money, even because of a lost wallet, as the site says. Coupons could be exchanged for a meal from any of the many restaurants that were a part of the operation.

Hafiz notes that food plays the most vital part in strengthening the sub-culture of a community - now more than ever before. “Dress has lost its relevance that way as traditional attire is only used to perform at dances. Food is what has preserved the social identity of a community along the coastal belt.”

The makeshift thattukadas or eateries that line the roads of Kerala remain the same, like Kareem’s no-frills Ustad Hotel, the Sulaimani never unaffordable to the common man. But swanky cafes serving Sulaimani have also mushroomed in the years post Ustad Hotel the movie, with more than a dozen flavours on offer. The role of the beverage though, is unchanged. And to think all it took was some muhabath.

 

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