Though it might not be as well known to the rest of the country, Kuzhimanthi Biryani has become one of Kerala’s favourite dishes. Popular mostly in the Malabar region, the biryani has gone from being an iftaar favourite in the Mappila community to becoming one of the recommended dishes for tourists sampling the region’s cuisine. However, Kuzhimanthi Biryani, like many Malabar dishes, has strong roots across the sea in West Asia. The kuzhimanthi, in particular, is a version of a Yemeni rice dish, adapted to Keralan tastes. And while the kuzhimanthi’s rise to fame has been more recent, Kerala and Keralan cuisine have a rich history of West Asian influence that pre-dates the Mughal Empire.
While called a biryani, Kuzhimanthi Biryani is a mandi or manthi, a Yemeni dish of flavoured rice and meat. Mandi is said to have originated from the Arabic word ‘nada’, meaning ‘dewy’, referring to the texture and softness of the meat in a mandi. The name kuzhimanthi is a portmanteau of mandi and kuzhy, the Malayalam word for the deep pit in which this dish has to be cooked. Rice in a biryani is often dum, that is, tightly covered and cooked with steam, and cooked with oil. However, the kuzhimanthi is made of basmati rice, spiced and slow-cooked in a pit in the ground while the accompanying chicken is cooked over it, allowing the juices from the chicken to drip down and flavour the rice further. While similar in many ways to Kuzhimanthi Biryani, the original Yemeni mandi differs in that it is typically cooked with lamb, with the rice being cooked in lamb stock, and is usually spiced less than the Keralan version, and served with tzatziki.
Malabar cuisine has always been heavily influenced and inspired by West Asian culture. Dishes like biryani became the ubiquitous part of Indian cuisine they are today because of Mughal influence from the 1500s onwards, but the Malabar region had seen Arab cuisine centuries before Babur set foot in India. Arab traders searching for new spices had crossed the Arabian Sea and begun to trade on the Malabar coast by the 7th century, and their trading success led to many settling and mingling with the locals. Alongside Islam, they also brought a culinary tradition that blended with the local fare to form the unique Malabari cuisine we have today.
Kuzhimanthi Biryani itself is a more recent product of cultural exchange. Having grown massively popular in the last few years, the dish was supposedly brought to Kerala by chef Ashraf Ali in 2006. Ali, a Keralite who had lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, included the mandi on his first menu for his restaurant ‘Spicy Hut’, terming it a biryani to make it more accessible for this part of the world. Over the years, many Keralites like Ali have regularly travelled to work in the Gulf region and returned with an interest and desire for Arab and Arab-inspired cuisine, leading dishes like the kuzhimanthi to grow ever popular.
So, though it might be a little spicier and little less meaty, Kuzhimanthi Biryani is a delicious evolution of the manthi that pays homage to its Yemeni roots and, in a way, continues an enriching tradition of West Asian cultural influence in Kerala.
Feature Image Courtesy : @thekochifoodscene/Instagram
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