Mutton Stew in a Malabar Kitchen

#1000Kitchens is a series that takes you into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this instalment, we visit Kathija Hashim in Kannur, a quiet, charming seaside town in the Malabar. 

Kathija Hashim’s kitchen smells like sweet onions browning. Outside it begins to drizzle and Chandri chechi, the house help, runs out to rescue the laundry. She is tiny, and in a sudden gust of wind and rain, is tangled in a knot of stark white mundus and towels.

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It is monsoon in the Malabar, and we are cooking Mappila mutton stew with Kathija, at her home in the seaside town of Kannur. Kathija is one half of the Malabar Tearoom, a blog that follows the culinary adventures of a mother-daughter duo cooking in small town India. The other half is her daughter (and my partner at the Goya Journal), Aysha.

We have spent a week in Kannur with Kathija, discovering all the joys of this sleepy town: the pretty coffee shop at the YMCA, tea and sunsets by the guest house on the cliff, morning walks by the ocean, a magnificent old house retailing Kannur-cotton. She drives us to Kannur’s best restaurant for lunch and apprises us as we hurriedly scramble into the car behind her: "Lipstick is always a good idea, girls." It may be small-town Kerala, but Kathija is always perfectly turned out — even on a day when the furthest she has to travel is the supermarket. For a generation that works in their pyjamas, for whom no-pants Monday is a real thing, Kathija is an enigma. At Hotel Odhens she orders us a banana leaf thali of utter abandon: red rice, sambar, avial, clams, squid, fish, shrimp. After this, the only thing we can manage is a nap, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the tropics.

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In the cantonment town of Burnassery (formerly Burnashire) the roads are clean, the houses are beautiful. Deep verandas under red tiled roofs look out onto streets lined with plantain leaves and birds of paradise. Kerala’s otherwise stern sun is dimmed by the monsoon, and the streets have an evening glow even at noon. It is strange and special. Between the joints of laterite walls, moss grows neon green. Left unchecked, the green will quietly appropriate dog-eared paperbacks and worn leather shoes, swallowing everything.

Back at home, Kathija’s kitchen shows no signs of this tropical inertia. Stocked to the brim — two refrigerators full of sauces and spice rubs — at the ready to knock together delicious meals at a moment’s notice. Like most homes in Kerala, there is a wood-fired stove outside where the soot reaches high up the white walls; here the day’s rice and fish are cooked. Inside, the kettle whistles and Aysha sets out three mugs for tea on the glistening black granite kitchen island. Her mum is at the hob. "Mole," she explains, "In the olden days, mutton was the special meat; you could make this stew with chicken, but you would serve your guests only mutton." This stew is unique in that, unlike other Kerala stews, it is made without coconut milk. "Similar to an Irish stew, we add onion and potato, and thicken with a bit of flour. It goes very well with appams and pathiri, or even bread." Kathija's breads are well known in Kannur; loaves of homemade beauty.

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As the onions brown slowly, and the spicy aromas of ginger and chilli fill the air, Kathija heaps mutton into the pot. She fixes the weight onto the cooker, and places three wooden trivets by the window. A lizard darts across the ledge. "Shall we wait in the veranda, girls?"

The rain is thrashing down as Kathija points out the fruit trees in her garden; old friends with long and complicated relationships. "There’s the mango tree, she fruits every summer. This one is starfruit and that's roseapple. And over there by the gooseberry bush, is purple jamun. And at the back is pomelo. She never fruits until I've given up on her entirely."

Adjacent to the pomelo tree a bottle-green wooden bench has sprouted fluorescent orange mushrooms. "It is peaceful here, I miss that when I'm away. I do often long to be away — I love to travel — but when I'm away, I miss this. Life is laid-back here, and there's enough to keep me busy: I cook a bit, I'm interested in the garden. Once a day I run to the supermarket."

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Aysha, the youngest of her four daughters, cooks with her the most frequently. They share a deep love for cookbooks, but fairly diverse cooking styles. "Aysha will always pick the most finicky, complicated recipes. She used to turn up her nose at my simple pasta sauces. But now?" she asks teasingly. Aysha concedes. "Mum’s sauces really are the best."

"What was that I used to say, Aysha, when we'd knead pizza dough together?"

"Behave yourself!" Aysha squeals. When Aysha was little, they’d take turns spanking the dough on the counter top, mother and daughter sternly reprimanding the flour mix, "Behave yourself!" They both laugh.

"Hasn't it been an hour?" We hurry back inside and the house smells delicious. Kathija uncovers the pot and stirs gently. "Beautiful" she says, approvingly. A few potatoes, a handful of sea salt, and she fastens the top for one more whistle on the cooker.

"We add pepper at the end, to preserve the colour." Aysha smiles at her mum. "Payaram," she replies. All that unnecessary fuss.

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Recipe: Kathija's mutton stew

Ingredients

 1/2 kg mutton, cubed
 3 large onions sliced
 2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
 5-6 green chillies, sliced
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 inch ginger, crushed
1 tbsp ghee
A handful coriander leaves chopped
1 tsp Tellicherry black pepper, powdered
Salt to taste
Squeeze of lime juice

Method

 Heat a pressure cooker on low flame, and add the ghee to it.
 Now add the onions and sauté until transparent.
Add green chillies and ginger and continue sautéing for 2-3 minutes.
Add the mutton and a dash of salt and mix well.
Pour 3/4 cup of the hot water and place the lid with the whistle on. After one whistle (about a minute), reduce the heat and let it cook for 10 minutes. Remove lid carefully, and gently mash the onions with the back of a ladle, add the potatoes, rest of the water and close the pressure cooker once again for two whistles.
Take off the lid and, if you like the stew to be a little thicker, let it cook for a few minutes with the lid off.
Now add the Tellicherry black pepper, adjust seasoning, and garnish with coriander.
Squeeze a little lime over it and serve hot.

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen and photos by Aysha Tanya; Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.

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