A Mappila Lunch with Rafia Koya

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we visit Rafia Koya in Mangalore, for a traditional Mappila meal.

1000 kitchens rafia chicken fry recipe

In Rafia Koya’s garden, the guavas are a burnished red. And every adjacent house on Vas Lane, in Mangalore, has a summer garden that is jewelled with fruit: pomelo, papaya, passionfruit, and mangosteen. Bougainvillea in a flurry of pink, is bright against red-tiled roofs and whitewashed walls that bear no evidence of the summer rain.

We are summoned to breakfast with freshly squeezed orange juice. The table has been laid with appam and stew, egg roast, chicken curry, and crisp, flakey Malabar parottas. The dining room feels like a glamourous 60s movie set. Eames chairs sit snugly around the table, a glittering chandelier sparkles. Wood panelled walls, crisp white linen, and grilled glass doors that swing open to an immaculate lawn and marble birdbath. A cat wanders in and pokes his head around.

1000 kitchens rafia chicken fry recipe
1000Kitchens Rafia Mappila chicken fry recipe

Rafia belongs to the Mappila community of the Malabar, and is sharing an heirloom recipe with us – Kozhi Porichathu. But she is also cooking all the accompanying bells and whistles that comprise a Mappila meal; there are never any half measures when it comes to food in a Mappila home. And given that she is also Aysha’s aunt, she is doubly determined not to pass up the opportunity to imbibe the fundamentals of Mappila cuisine within her youngest niece.

The Mappilas are one of the oldest native Muslim communities of South Asia, tracing back to trade between the Malabar Coast and the Middle East, as far back as the 7th century. 2000 years of trade with the Arabs have influenced Mappila cuisine and culture: techniques like slow-cooking in the mandi, stuffed meats, fried snacks, even the chayakada’s sulaymani (sweet black tea with lemon) are lingering evidence of Middle Eastern tradition.

“Our family is fanatic about food. There is no masala kalli here, no elaborate play of spices. We use spices sparingly, and there lies the beauty,” Rafia smiles. “In our home, there is always fish curry in the mornings, and at least one chicken and mutton dish. Especially in my father’s house.” Rafia was very close to her father, and it was for him she learnt to cook. Her walls are framed with black and white photographs, and postcards from his travels abroad. “They used to say: If you sit by the right hand of Kaddar Kutti, you are finished – you’ll be eating a lorry-load!”

“But that’s how it is with you now, aunty!” her niece interjects cheekily. At Rafia’s table, every meal features the elements of a veritable feast, cooked in shockingly large quantities; leftovers are unheard of. The secret, as we soon learn, is that she is a resolute hostess – there are almost always guests for dinner.

1000Kitchens Rafia Mappila chicken fry recipe

Today, as she cooks us a neichoru (or ghee rice) and kozhi porichathu (spiced chicken fry), there is also cabbage thoran, parripu dal, and chakkarakutti mango curry being prepped on the side. Rafia, in a pink silk sari, exhales rhythmically; a sheen of moisture glistens on her upper lip. Her mouth is set in a permanent pout, betraying a determined, but charming temperament; this is someone who is accustomed to having things done her way.

A neighbour comes around to watch her cook. Rafia's culinary skills are well known both within and outside her community, and her recipes are famously guarded. She has opened up her kitchen to us on the affection she holds for her niece, and now that she has made up her mind, there is no holding back. She shares information down to the smallest detail, and we scramble to keep up.

1000Kitchens Rafia Mappila chicken fry recipe
1000 kitchens rafia chicken fry recipe
1000Kitchens Rafia Mappila chicken fry recipe

Neichor sounds simple enough, but as we learn, God is in the details. "Wash the rice 4 or 5 times, until the water rinses clear. Then drain it immediately, or the rice will become mushy." In a waiting brass chembu of hot oil, she measures cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, and adds in half a sliced onion. When the rice goes in, she turns it over in precise motions, counting under her breath. "Listen until you hear it crackle: tik tik tik."

As she sets another pot on the stove, and picks up the natti kozhi left to drain by the sink, she explains the simple but beloved recipe of Kozhi Porichathu: “We use just three ingredients – onions, turmeric, and chilli powder in coconut oil. In the end, we finish with a bit of ghee. Just watch me, and you’ll be able to do it.”

Outside, the watchman has dozed off under a chakkarakutta mango tree. Birds of paradise light up the corner of the garden, against long, tropical banana leaves. The sugar baby mangoes will soon go into a unique and utterly delicious mango curry that will drip down our arms as we eat. And after lunch, we will retreat into cool rooms, darkened with thick curtains to keep out the summer heat. Perhaps we’ll even catch a walk on the beach in the evening. Dinner is Mappila biryani, and there’s a party arriving.

Rafia's Kozhi Porichathu Recipe
(serves 4)

600 gm chicken pieces in curry cut
2 cups water
2 medium onion, halved and sliced
3 tbsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp rock salt
3 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbsp ghee

Bring the water to a boil, and add in the sliced onion.
After a few minutes, add chilli powder and turmeric and stir well.
Now add in the chicken and salt.
Cook on high flame for 10 min, with a lid on.
Now, remove the lid, and stir in the coconut oil.
Lower the flame, and continue to cook until the water reduces to thick gravy, about 25 minutes.
Finally, add in ghee, stir, and turn off flame.
Serve hot with neichor.

1000Kitchens Rafia Mappila chicken fry recipe

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by Amogh Bhatnagar.