Zarine Mohideen writes about a classic Tamil Muslim dish of meat with dumplings that is served to close family and newly-weds.
Over generations, Muslim communities in India have made many contributions to the culinary landscape of the country; kebabs, biryanis, meat gravies, chicken in countless variations, and sweetmeats drenched in ghee.
Biryani, without doubt, is the most popular of these dishes, and holds prime spot on the list of special-occasion food. We Muslims are also guilty of feeding into this stereotype by serving it every chance we get — Biryani is served on Eid, leftovers carried over to the next day; served at weddings, and on just about any given day of the week. We make it often, eat so much of it that we can’t bear to think of it again, only to attend the next wedding and make a beeline for the biryani counter.
While biryani remains the crowd puller in my community, the Tamil Muslims, we also have a repertoire of traditional recipes that are reserved for family gatherings. One such dish is thakkadi, a meat and dumplings dish that is served to close family and newly-weds.
Tamil Muslims are a community made up of almost 4 million people, residing primarily in the state of Tamil Nadu. Contrary to popular belief, we do not speak Urdu or Hindi. Instead, we are a Tamil-speaking people that practice Islam. The community has become largely urban, and while many have settled overseas, they trace their roots back to the districts of Tirunelveli, Madurai and Trichy.
Traditional Tamil Muslim cuisine has received little to no attention, despite being rich and colourful. Thakkadi is one of our most colourful and interesting dishes. In this spicy, comforting Tamil Muslim classic, tender pieces of meat are cooked with plump dumplings, to create a thick mutton gravy. I have fond memories of summer vacations in Tirunelveli, hanging about the kitchen while the women in my family stirred large pots of food, telling stories and laughing. I grew up with the smell of ginger-garlic paste in the air, the sound of onions sizzling as they hit the heavy bottom of the pressure cooker, signalling the start of something wonderful. My grand aunts, with whom we spent our summer vacations, showered us with love and food; food that wasn’t just delicious, but were culinary heirlooms, passed down through generations.
As unique as thakkadi is to the district of Tirunelveli, I have found that it holds equal, if not more popularity with Muslims in Sri Lanka. A cursory search on Google will reveal recipes of thakkadi — a popular Sri Lankan dish. With a few variations in the preparation of gravy and dumplings, the Sri Lankan thakkadi and Tamil thakkadi could be cousins.
My family has been making thakkadi for over 200 years. Generations of men from Tirunelveli and other southern districts, travelled to Burma (now Myanmar), Sri Lanka and the Gulf, in search of prosperity. My great-great grandfather was one of these men, travelling often to Sri Lanka on work. Perhaps it was during one of these trips that he brought back home the tales of thakkadi.
The combination of meat and dumplings is not the most original — every culture in the world has a version of it. Dumplings are comfort food, and given the simple ingredients, it is no surprise that many cultures all over the world have experimented with and perfected variations of this combination. Round, square, stuffed with meat or vegetables, these delicate, pillowy cushions comfort the hungry and satisfy the gourmands. From Asian gyozas and dim sums, South American empanadas, Afghan mantis, Polish pierogis and Nepalese momos, they are found the world over. In each variation, they bear clear similarities: flour is mixed with, or wrapped around, herbs, vegetables, meat, and is steamed or cooked in a sauce.
Dumplings in broth is an easy way to use leftovers, to create a dish that is both flavourful and thrifty. To make thakkadi, balls of dough — a mixture of rice flour with flecks of coconut — are cooked in a meat gravy. As the dumplings cook, they soak up the gravy to become soft and squishy, and the gravy in turn slowly turns thicker as the dumplings melt to become one with the gravy.
The ‘original’ thakkadi recipe from Tirunelveli is made with fist-sized dumplings. The districts of Madurai make a variant called thikkadi that use smaller, lime-sized balls. The variations don’t end here; some recipes call for the dough to be rolled out and cut into bite-sized pieces akin to Italian gnocchi. In Tirunelveli, a mix of rice flour and coconut flakes is used to make dumplings, while others use only rice flour, adding coconut milk instead, to the gravy. But no matter which recipe you follow, the dumplings, meat and gravy, form a holy trinity of deliciousness that is guaranteed to soothe the soul.
Zarine Mohideen is an Indian writer based in the Bay Area.
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