After Italian and Portuguese connections, it is the Arabian Sea that has brought the two nations closer to each other on the plate.
In the culinary scape, experimentation and adaptation is a common phenomenon. After all, how do you think we’ve got such a huge gamut of cuisines available at our disposal had it not been for such an exchange of cultures? The travelers from various countries crossed paths and left behind a part of their culture in each region. Colonization also played a huge role in influencing the lifestyle and culture of their colonies, as it is today. In this process, a crossover is something that can be expected. The Portuguese, for instance, brought with them, the tomatoes and potatoes and not just that, they have also been credited for introducing us to Pav Bhaji, a popular street food in Maharashtra.
On similar lines, several historians have drawn parallels between Arabic and Indian cuisines too. The route of these Arab settlers can be traced back to the southern state of Kerala. Up in the north of the state, the region is inhabited by the Mappila community, which is predominantly Muslim. When the Arab merchant traders entered India, they took this route and started selling their wares along the Malabar coast in the seventh century. With a monopoly in the spice trade during the first millennium, these Arabs wanted to tap into the lucrative Indian spice market and spruce up their basic traditional food.
Did you know that the Arabic food was essentially less refined till it met the Indian flavours? Our koftas would appear spicier to their koftes and the samosas we relish here are not casted with maida in the Arab world. Yet the similarities in terms of the kind of food that is eaten both the nations is what brings us closer. For instance, our lassi has an Arabic counterpart called Labam which is popular in Saudi Arabia. Curd or yoghurt is extensively used in both cuisines, especially as side dishes for various other items.
Stepping into an Arabic country, you wouldn’t feel alien with their kabsa, which also happens to be the national dish of Saudi Arabia and Mandi reminding you of your favourite biryani back home. Dunked with dried fruits, nuts and vegetables, the mandi is lent its complex flavours because of the slow-cooking on dum. However, the use of tender meat of a young goat is what makes it different. Quite specific to Kerala, it would be hard for you find this dish elsewhere.
This reminds us of another Ramadan favourite, which is a common part of the iftar meals, haleem. A broken wheat porridge, slow cooked with minced meat and lentils, this dish is similar to harisa which is known by several names in Middle-eastern countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. This is served along with biryani, not an ordinary biryani but Thalasserry biryani. The fusion one-pot rice dish gets its name from the Hindu Thiyya families in the Thalasserry area of Malabar, accompanied by coconut chutney and date pickle.
Even the practice of eating together and sharing food, particularly bread has been largely influenced by the Ottoman empire. In fact, what is interesting to note is that several adaptations have taken place in the local culture to give way to the needs of the Arab seafarers in the form of say, ari pathiri. Rice was the staple carb of the Mappila community but the concept of bread was introduced to them by the Arabs, for which the women started using local ingredients like rice powder to make this rice- flour chapatti to eat during the meals.
Beverages have also been influenced to a great extent. Apart from the Labam, there is a certain variety of tea that is quite popular among the Malabar residents. Known as Suleimani chai, the sweet black tea with a hint of lemon draws its origins from Saudi Arabia’s Bohra community.
The rich and diverse Arabic world has not only given us such delectable gifts but also acquired the taste for Mughlai kebabs, qormas and salans over the years, taking the culinary exchange to a paramount level.