Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Malabar Style Chemmeen/Prawn Biryani

Subaida, Umma and Baappa stepped into my world when I was a toddler, without even realizing that they were becoming a thread in my childhood fabric. When Subaida walked into our lives to baby sit me and later to take care of my toddler brother, she was just a teenager, staying in a small house at the end of our street. She used to call her parents Umma and Baappa (mom & dad) and I guess that’s how we all started addressing the couple in the same fashion. She was an average brown skinned girl with a beautiful smile on her face which gave a natural blush to her otherwise humble face.

It was those mehendi stained hands of Subaida that sprouted my obsession for Mailanchi/Mehendi (henna). They had lots of Mailanchi plants, the leaves of which she stone grounded into a smooth paste and applied on her hands and feet; me and my cousin, G chechi used to be green eyed whenever we saw those bright reddish stains left on her palms as the paste we made never gave results close to hers. Since she knew I was crazy about applying Mailanchi on my hands, Subaida sometimes shared the freshly ground paste with me and my mother. The next day, on my way to school, as always I would catch her either washing vessels or filling pots at the road-side water-tap, wearing a full skirt and a tight blouse and ‘Thattam’, a long scarf covering her head. I was always excited to talk to her on such days to show off the artistic design my cousin or mother drew on my hands, using the paste she gave. I must admit that the modest art work on her hands still had a brighter shade than mine! The secret she shared was adding some sugared lemon juice occasionally on dried up paste! We owe it to Sulaiman, Subaida’s brother who was my mother’s 911 agent for getting her life-saver nasal drops whenever my father was at work and she wanted a refill badly.

Subaida’s Baappa
, Saayu as everyone called him, had a pettikkada (small shop) at the main road where we waited for our school bus. That pettikkada served as a shelter for us during the rainy days while waiting for the bus to come. On a desk supported by wooden boxes, Baappa lined soda bottles which came locked with a marble on the bottle neck; glass jars filled with Kappalandi muttai (candied groundnuts), naaranga muttai (candied lemons), lollipops and had some outdated copies of the bi-monthly publications like Mangalam, Deepika hanging from a rope along with the homemade naaranga achar (pickled lemons) sachets Umma made at home. Those kappalandi muttai and naaranga achar sachets always tempted me but it was my brother, a nursery brat at that time, broke my father’s Lakshman Rekha. One evening while walking back from the bus-stop, he devoured those candies and casually informed my father “ Acha, saayu-nte kadayil oru 50 paisa-de ‘pattu’ undu..” meaning, “Dad..I have a 50 paisa debt at Saayu’s shop”. My parents were quite alarmed and amazed at their 5 year old’s ‘cool’ behavior and mastery over the colloquial language!!

Baappa earned his living mainly by selling soda sarbath (lemon soda) and Beedi to men coming to pray at the juma masjid (mosque) behind his shop. This mosque was another target of my curiosity as I saw only men coming to the mosque wearing white mundu (wrap-around) and full sleeve shirt, with a hand-kerchief tied on their head, to cover their hair. After washing their hands and feet in a small pond in the compound, I got a glimpse of them kneeling on a mat offering prayers. It was years later I realized that those men were coming for Niskaram (prayer). Baankuvili (call for prayer) was another fascinating mystery to me for a long-long time. Mosque was crowded with men especially during the festival days of Ramadan and Bakrid. Passing by Subaida's house during that festival time was like self-inflicting excruciating pain as the aromatic neichoru (ghee rice) and kozhicurry (chicken curry), which Umma cooked, made unsolicited entry into our nostrils, making our life miserable. We were on top of our excitement whenever we got an invite to attend Subaida’s sibling’s Nikah (marriage) as for us it was not only an opportunity to relish their ghee loaded fragrant Biryani but to experience the orange squash and ariyunda they served at the Mailanchi kalyanam, a function on the previous day of nikah.

Subaida, Umma, Baappa are all proud members of the Kerala Muslim community who is renowned for their rich Biryani and meat preparations with a distinct touch. However, there is a sub-group called Malabar Mappilas who crown the northern coast of Kerala with their flavorful and rich cuisine. Though my paternal family, hailing from a historically significant Muslim dominated area, is affluent in northern Kerala specialties like ‘pathiri’, paper thin-soft-flat rice breads, our exposure to Moplah (Malabar Muslims) flavours has always been limited. I started learning about the Moplah style cooking in large scale through blogs like Malabar Spices and Indian Potpourri. Lucky enough, I was gifted with a copy of ‘Malabar Muslim Cookery’ authored by Ms. Ummi Abdulla who is considered the pioneer in introducing Moplah cookery to the rest of the world. Will elaborate more on this book in my next post and for the time being, let me share a classic Malabar recipe I enjoyed from her book:

Malabar Style Chemmeen/Prawn Biryani
(Recipe Source: Malabar Muslim Cookery’ by Ms. Ummi Abdulla. I slightly changed the measurements and methods to suit my cooking conditions.)

Step 1: Make Biryani Masala/Dry Spice Mix
  • ½ tsp fennel seeds
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp Shahjeera/caraway seeds /Sahjeerakam
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 cardamom
  • 1 flat cinnamon ( 1” inch length)
  • ¼ tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1 whole mace
Grind everything to a fine powder. This yields around 2 tsp masala but you will require only 1 ½ tsp for making this dish.

Step 2: Cook Flavored Rice
  • 2 ½ cups Basmati rice
  • 5 cups water
  • 2 cups thinly sliced big onion
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 tbsp ghee
Wash and drain the rice on a paper towel. When it is medium dry, heat ghee in a large skillet and adds thinly sliced onions and sauté till it is transparent. Add rice and stir continuously for 2-3 minutes in low heat. Microwave Method: Transfer everything to a microwave safe bowl with 5 cups of water (2 cups of water for 1 cup basmati rice) and adjust the salt and pop it in the microwave and cook for 23-25 minutes or until rice is done. Stove-top Method: Boil water in a heavy bottom cooking vessel, and when it comes to boil, add all the ingredients and bring it to a boil again and then reduce the flame and cook covered in low-medium heat, until rice is fully done and water is absorbed. Using a fork, gently fluff/separate the rice, so as not to get sticky.

Step 3: Make Chemmeen/Prawn Masala
  • ½ kg Chemmeen/Prawn/shrimp, shelled and cleaned
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • Around ¾ cup Oil for shallow frying Chemmeen/Prawn/shrimp
  • 2 cups thinly sliced onions
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped ginger
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped garlic
  • 4 ½ tbsp green chillies (around 15-16; adjust according to your tolerance level)
  • 2tsp coriander powder
  • 1 1/4 tsp Biryani Masala, powdered earlier
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 ½ to 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro/coriander leaves, chopped
  • ¼ cup mint leaves chopped
Make a wet marinade with chilli powder, turmeric powder and salt and apply it on prawns and leave it for 20 minutes in room temperature. Meanwhile grind ginger, garlic and green chillies into a paste and keep aside. Heat oil in a pan and shallow fry Chemmeen/Prawn/shrimp to a light brown colour and remove. Add sliced onions to this leftover oil and sauté till light brown. To this, add the ground ginger-garlic-green chilli paste and fry for another 2 minutes. Add coriander powder, stir well and add ½ cup water and salt to taste. Let it cook till the gravy is thick and at this point add fried prawns, lemon juice, chopped coriander leaves and mint leaves and 1 ¼ tsp Biryani masala/dry spice mix. Stir well and let everything come together for a minute and remove from the fire and keep aside.

Step 4: Layering and Final cooking
  • 4 tbsp ghee
  • ¼ tsp pinches of Biryani Masala
The final part of the cooking can be done either in a conventional oven or on stove top. Decide on your preferred cooking method and based on that decision, choose your cooking vessel. Pour 2 tbsp ghee into your cooking vessel; spread half of the rice at the bottom, followed by the Chemmeen/Prawn masala and sprinkle ¼ tsp biryani masala; spread rest of the rice as the top layer and drizzle 2 tbsp ghee. Conventional oven Method: Preheat oven to 350 F. Close the oven –safe dish with aluminum foil and cook for 30 minutes. Stove top Method: As per the original recipe, remove half the rice ( from the vessel you cooked rice earlier) to a plate ; pour the Chemmeen/Prawn masala, sprinkle biryani masala and then transfer the rice, set aside in the plate, back to the cooking vessel. Keep a tight fitting lid and cook over very low heat for 5 more minutes. Note: I haven’t tested this method and hence I am not sure of the outcome.

To Serve: After the final phase of cooking, let the dish rest undisturbed for minimum 30 minutes on your kitchen counter. Before serving, stir the entire dish gently, mixing rice with the Chemmeen/Prawn masala and plate it. Serve with Pickle, puli inji, Pappadam and Onion-yogurt salad (Thinly sliced big red onion, 1 small green chilli chopped and mixed with yogurt and a dash of salt) or any one of these condiments.

Cooking schedule I followed:
  • Wash and drain the rice
  • Marinate Chemmeen/Prawns
  • Make Biryani Masala/Dry Spice mix
  • Make the chilly-ginger-garlic paste for Prawn masala and get the onions sliced
  • Roast and cook rice
  • While rice is cooking, make Chemmeen/Prawn masala
  • Layering and final phase of cooking
  • Serve.
Verdict: We liked this dish and felt it is a Biryani preparation that is designed to highlight the flavour of Chemmeen/Prawns. It does not have the customary frou-frou of caramelized onions, nuts and raisins in between the layers or as garnish and yet it comes out tasty and personally I felt it was more “home-style”. Tasty and Easy to put together on a weekend !

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You can check out this picture of pettikkada which looks similar to that of Baappa's.


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