Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 16, December 1-15, 2018

Hungry husbands and cookbooks

by Geeta Doctor

Page 7-1Ummi AbdullaPage 7-2V. Abdulla.

It’s a fact universally acknow-ledged that hungry husbands inspire cookbooks.

At the recent release of Ummi Abdulla’s limited-edition coffee table book, A Kitchen Full of Stories, the contribution of her husband, the late V. Abdulla was not only acknowledged, but also celebrated by all those who know him.

Releasing the book, N. Ram described him as a publisher of exceptional calibre. He also described A Kitchen Full of Stories as “A celebration in a wider sense of the idea of India, the rich diversity and plurality and the secular spirit of its historical civilisation that has come under stress and challenge today.” While receiving copies of the book from Ram, Nandini Rao, Chairman and Managing Director, Orient Blackswan, and Chef Regi Mathew, entrepreneur and co-owner of a newly opened restaurant in the City, specialising in Kerala cuisine, both talked about the multi-cultural influences that define the food from the region.

The Editor of Madras Musings provided an intimate glimpse of V. Abdulla’s dining table during the years when Abdulla was involved with a people-friendly magazine of views and reviews devoted to books. This was the enterprise known as the Indian Review of Books. It rose with meteoric brilliance across the City’s skyline with the support of a few passionate if slightly eccentric individuals such as S. Muthiah, V. Abdulla, S. Krishnan, our East-West Padmanabhan.

Like the Musketeers, their vision was “Good Reading for all and all for the love of the written word.” Almost by chance, the enthusiasm by the literary Booksketeers led to the founding of the Madras Book Club that would meet at regular interval over a cup of tea/coffee, cakes and sandwiches, at first provided by the Taj Connemara hotel to which the Kumars, fresh out of British Council, got a dying club to move.

“Many of our discussions would end with a fabulous meal prepared by Ummi”, recollects Muthiah. “Abdulla was a keen supporter of his wife’s talents. He encouraged her to hone her skills at the Chennai Institute of Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition and from there, there was no stopping her.” She not only produced jams, preserves and cordials from her home kitchen, she was famous for supplying the 5-Star hotels of those days with cocktail onions. Abdulla was instrumental in helping her write a cookbook published by Orient Longman, where he was the publisher till his retirement. A slim volume packed with recipes and line drawings, it became the must-have for young brides and those travelling out of the country ever since 1993 when it was first published.

Malabar Muslim Cookery is still in print,” says Ummi proudly as she sits in a brilliant pink flowered saree wearing a long-sleeved blouse, or jacket, signing the latest book. Standing by her side is Nazaneen Jalaluddin, her grand-daughter, who has not just conceptualised the new book but taken it through a long process of checking the recipes herself and a host of other helpers, set the scene for the photographs using traditional kitchen utensils and sourcing the ingredients, as well as crowd-funding the wherewithal required for such a lavish compendium. Nazaneen is herself a professional working in the software industry.

As Regi Mathew observes, “Each of these recipes has a story behind it.” Nazaneen has tracked down the stories behind some of the more exotic dishes. There is however much more. “Even as a child, my grand mother would tell us the most interesting stories of her childhood spent at Thikkody, close to Calicut and how she and her ten siblings would watch her own mother, whom she called Umma, and I realised that almost everything she said or did was about food and her experiences with and around it,” explains Nazaneen.

These little snippets of a childhood growing up in a large household set in a magnificent compound full of trees, plants, herbs and roots with chickens and hens that would cater to feeding the family and the fishermen bringing in the daily catch are what make Ummi’s stories so enticing.

Here, for instance, while giving the reader a recipe for raw Malabar bananas (Kaya Upperi) she talks about her daughter-in-law Jameela.

“My daughter-in-law, Jameela, loves all vegetables. She couldn’t care less about rice and other accompaniments, but when it comes to upperi (shallow-fried vegetables) or kootu (lentils with vegetables), she cannot have enough. In our house in Calicut, every now and then, a bunch of raw bananas fall off the tree. While I prefer to wait it out and let them ripen, Jameela insists on making the kaya upperi because she loves it. And then, she makes it again for a second and third day. This goes on till one of us intervenes and begs her to stop.”

Another time she describes how in her early days of marriage she could barely cook, never having had to prepare anything in her maternal home, when Abdulla who was fond of entertaining his famous literary friends announced that Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, the well-known writer was coming home for dinner, specifically to eat her fish biryani. “On that fateful day, the head cook Aminatha had taken the day off. Luckily my aunt lived nearby and I sent for her to cook immediately. Basheer really enjoyed the lunch that was served for him and wanted to meet the person who had prepared it. My husband asked me to come and meet Basheer, and when I met him, he looked me straight in the eye and asked me if I was the one who made the biryani. Though I sheepishly answered in the affirmative, he saw right through me. He expressed his doubts about me being the cook. Later that night, my husband asked me who had cooked the biryani and I told him the truth. We had a good laugh about it, but it was then that I made up my mind to master the biryani.”

And master it, she did. Ummi’s Fish Biryani is part of the repertoire that has made her a legend of Malabar Mappila cuisine. With her latest book there are both the recipes and the stories to savor and share with a new generation of food lovers.

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