Arab Influence Brings Hearty Alissa to Kerala, India
The cooking of Kerala Muslims owes as much to the Yemeni Arab traders as it does to the culinary traditions of its native Kerala, India. Consider alissa, a wholesome wheat and meat porridge, hand-rolled wafer-thin ari pathiri (rice bread), or muttamala served over pinnanathappam, (delicate thin strings of egg yolks cooked in sugar syrup served over steam-cooked cardamom-scented egg white pudding).
Centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni attacked northern India in A.D. 1000, the southwestern coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf and East Africa was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts excelled in maritime trade with distant lands, and by the early Christian period South India was transformed into a commercial hub linking the West and the East through coastal and inland routes. A flourishing spice trade between southwestern India and the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman flourished.
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Arab traders left their shores in July, at the height of the southwestern monsoon season, to go to Kerala, the heart of the pepper country. They returned carrying their precious cargo of many spices as the northwest monsoons arrived in November.
When the relentless monsoons prompted several Arab merchants to stay back until favorable travel weather returned, many settled down and married local women. The alliance was solemnized with the payment of a token bride price, and the local brides and their children were initiated into Islam. Muslims of Kerala, known as Mappilas, account for nearly a quarter of the state’s population.
Influenced by the culinary traditions of traders from the Persian Gulf and leaning heavily on the Kerala spice combinations, Mappila cuisine is known for its distinct taste. It is unlike the Muslim-influenced, rich Mughlai cuisine of North India. In Mappila cuisine, rice, coconut, coconut milk and coconut oil are liberally used. Black pepper is a predominant spice, followed by cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Rice is the staple grain of Kerala. But because their Arab husbands preferred bread, the ingenious Mappila women created breads made with rice — pathiri.
More than any other Mappila dish, alissa is most strongly rooted to Arab cuisine. Unlike any other Kerala preparation, its main ingredient is wheat and traditionally cinnamon is the only spice used.
This thick porridge is made with wheat from which bran is removed along with meat or chicken. The dish is garnished with thinly sliced shallots, raisins and cashews fried in ghee. It is one of the dishes served as a starter before ghee rice or biryani at north Kerala Muslim weddings.
Many variations around the world
Alissa is quite similar to harisa, a recipe preserved over centuries by the people of the Middle East. Recipes for this dish are found in 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook “Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen,” “Sufi Cuisine” and the Iraqi cookbook “Delights from the Garden of Eden.”
It was called hareesa in medieval Baghdad, and it’s called herise in many parts of Turkey, where it is served at weddings. In Lebanon, hreessey is a comfort food in the villages when the weather turns cold. Various versions of this porridge made with wheat, barley or semolina were prevalent wherever Arab traders traveled, from Morocco to Muslim Andalusia.
“From the 7th century until today, harisa was a kind of porridge made from pounded wheat, butter, meat, and spices” writes Clifford A.Wright in his article “Gruel, Porridge, and the ‘First Foods’ of Tunisia.” As they break the fast during Ramadan in the Middle East, there are certain dishes that are always served, h’riss being one of them. In her article “Breaking the Fast” in Saveur, Anissa Helou writes: “This deeply satisfying dish of spiced meat and creamy wheat berries is most often made with lamb, but it’s particularly delicious when made with chicken. The version we ate was drizzled with ghee blended with bzar, which gave the h’riss a warm, toasty flavor.”
And harisa of the Middle East became alissa in Kerala. A more elaborate version, called haleem, is popular in north India.
The following recipe for alissa is adapted from Malabar Muslim cookery by Ummi Abdulla.
For the alissa:
1½ cups skinless wheat
1 large onion cut into slices
Salt to taste
2 pounds of chicken or mutton cut into pieces
1½ inch piece of cinnamon stick
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons ghee, plus extra for serving
½ shallot thinly sliced
1 tablespoon raisins
8 to 10 cashew nuts
1. Soak wheat in water for an hour and drain.
2. In a stock pot, combine wheat, chicken or mutton, sliced onion, cinnamon and salt along with 10 to 12 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the wheat is very tender and broken down.
3. Remove from the stove and mash well until it reaches porridge-like consistency.
4. Heat ghee in a small skillet and add cashews. As the cashews begin to change color, add the raisins. Toast until cashews are golden brown and raisins have plumped up. Remove the fried cashews and raisins from the skillet and set aside.
5. In the same ghee, fry shallot slices until golden. Combine with fried nuts and raisins.
To serve, ladle alissa into serving bowls and top with fried onions, raisins and cashews. Drizzle more ghee over the top and serve hot.
Photo: Alissa. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran