During a sombre Ramzan in Tamil Nadu, the nombu kanji tells a fascinating story of state's Muslim communities
This Ramzan, amid the coronavirus-related lockdown, Muslim communities across Tamil Nadu are embracing a return to modest and mindful one-pot meals that are a testimony to both the spirit of resilience and the state’s distinctive cultural fabric
“We’ve always had a history of one-pot meals in Tamil history,” Chennai-based South Indian food historian and consultant chef Shri Bala says. “They seem to have made an appearance as early as 200 BC, when the word perun soru — literally translating to one big meal or feast of meat and rice — was recorded in Sangam literature.” Shri is telling me about an ancient culinary ritual observed by kings to reward subjects on emerging victorious from war, while also drawing attention to an unlikely ancient predecessor to the humble nombu kanji.
For most Muslim communities in Tamil Nadu, it is this nombu kanji — a rice and lentil-based gruel — that is synonymous with the iftar meal signaling the completion of the day’s fast during Ramzan. Another theory about kanji’s origins is outlined by the Chennai-based award-winning documentary filmmaker and historian S Anwar: “A millet porridge was distributed during the Aadi festival dedicated to Goddess Amman; nombu kanji could have evolved from that, with the millets being replaced with rice by Tamil Muslims.” Anwar adds, “Nombu kanji here is a community affair. Local mosques make it in a common kitchen and it is distributed to every member of the congregation.”
Nombu kanji, however, is just one of the more well represented one-pot meals to make a mark on the varied cultural culinary tapestry of the Muslims of Tamil Nadu. The choice of techniques, grains and proteins used differs for most of these dishes, but the principles holding them together are similar.
Shri Bala points out how commonly preached tenets of balanced nutrition are incorporated in the nombu kanji: “So much science is involved in the way this meal has been designed. Carbs are taken care of with the rice, there is a double protein dose from the dal and meat (if economic circumstances permit). Cumin assists digestion, fenugreek has anti-ulcer properties, ginger relieves acidity, and garlic helps ease the stomach.”
To understand the constitution of the kanji and its similar-natured counterparts is to receive an anthropological initiation into food, which bears vestiges of historical relationships born of colonisation, trade and subsequent intermarriages. Shri offers a quick grounding on the community: “Muslims in Tamil Nadu include both Tamil and Urdu Muslims. Tamil Muslims are called Labbai Muslims and their mother tongue is Tamil. They are found across the state and each district will have a cluster of them. The Arcot Muslims are Urdu speakers found in the northern region of Tamil Nadu such as Arcot, Walajah and Vaniyambadi. There are also settler Muslims from Bangalore called Dakhini Muslims who account for a miniscule percentage.”
The nuances of the kanji itself vary ever so slightly from region to region, a fact illustrated by Chennai-based homemaker Shakeen Banu who was raised in Pudukkottai. “Kilakarai kanji is called Kayalpattinam kanji and it’s very famous — they use chicken and it’s cooked in coconut milk. In Chennai, more ginger and garlic paste is used. Down south in Thanjavur, Pudukkottai and Trichy it is less spicy, with fewer masalas.”
Some of the quintessential pillars of Islam such as frugality are uncannily mirrored in these meals. Anisa Arif, who runs e-commerce venture Zaika Spices, gives us a window into the Dakhini community that prides itself on creating flavourful one-pot staples with a tight-fisted measure of meat: “The Dakhinis were traditionally middle-class people who worked for the more affluent sections of society. They’d use a little mutton and add a lot of vegetables and ingredients like coconut, which is probably the local influence.”
The lentil, rice and meat-based khichri is a fulfilling Dakhini classic while vermicelli and macaroni are cooked with a biryani base to make a standalone meal. This masala or akhni — as referred to by Vellore-based Muddasar Malick, who is the managing partner of multi-cuisine restaurant Hundreds Heritage — acts as the vehicle for several one-pot dishes (such as suthriyan) that are enjoyed by the Arcot community, to which he belongs. “Rice flour is boiled, made into a dough and then moulded into star, moon or diamond-shaped dumplings. These are then soaked in a semi-gravy mutton or chicken masala. Macaroni is made in the same way and given the dum treatment,” Malick says.
Shakeen deconstructs the basic structure of iftar, which is broken into “the nombu kanji, accompanied by a drink, sweet and snack.” Accompaniments to the nombu kanji are also of prime importance and she speaks with pride of kayiru katti kola. “The origin of this dish dates back to the Maratha kings of Thanjavur. Meatballs are made of dry roasted ingredients including desiccated coconut, poppy seeds, dried channa and whole masalas and tied with a string.”
Meat-based fried snacks definitely seem to hold a special place in several of these communities’ cuisines. Anisa highlights the shammi kebab, which is broken into pieces and dunked in the nombu kanji in the manner of a crouton while Muddasar emphasises the mutton chops (where small pieces of meat are given the fried bhajji treatment). Coastal areas, says Shakeen, incorporate seafood into their fare at any given opportunity and in places such as Nagore, ring-shaped eral vadais are fashioned out of leftover ghee rice and embedded with prawns before being deep fried. More traditional vegetarian accompaniments include masala and ulundu vadais, samosas, bhajjis and bondas.
Tirunelveli-based cookbook author Hazeena Seyad continues to champion age-old one-pot stalwarts that have strong associations for the Ravuthar community to which she belongs. Ravuthar cuisine, she says, is a byproduct of the populace that was born when Turkish soldiers were sent to India to deliver horses to the Chola kingdom and reached the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border via Rajasthan. It is thakkadi — an over 200-year-old dish, which is said to have been adapted from Sri Lanka where Ravuthar men undertook business — however, that has forged a stronghold in her home during Ramzan. She outlines the process of flour being made from rice, “but in a puttu-maave consistency and fried to a crisp with grated coconut. Spice and mutton stock are added before the mixture is shaped into balls and dropped into a mutton gravy”.
In addition to serving as a dessert, the sweet component of Iftar too seems to be conceived with some deliberation. Refreshing milk-based desserts that use coolants such as sweet basil seeds and agar agar are commonplace. Mudassar speaks of the body temperature-reducing virtues of Ramzan sharbat that is savoured after the special tharaweeh prayers held at night. “A glass of this works as a full-fledged meal. Chinagrass is set (without milk) and cut into small cubes and added along with diced ice apple and rose essence to milk. Some people add banana.” Anwar makes mention of coconut milk-based agar agar pudding kadal pasi, which gets a refreshing lift through the addition of ingredients such as rose milk and cardamom.
For Shakeen, this year is truly a throwback to old times and she has been making watalappan — a forgotten sweet on the dessert landscape. Featuring coconut milk, egg and sugar with ground cashews acting as a thickening agent, watalappan is steamed to pudding consistency.
The history and origin of these dishes is often contested but there are certain symbolic rituals, closely intertwined with their preparation in certain regions, which continue to make them significant. Anwar mentions how in Nagercoil — which claims to have a 150-year-old nombu kanji tradition — Surah Al-Fatihah is still recited after the fire is stoked for the preparation of the first pot. This year, devotees will not be able to draw sustenance from the reassuring bowl of kanji eaten in congregation. There is, however, a certain solidarity gained from the knowledge that in households across the state, variations of this gruel will continue to be eaten with generous donations being made to ensure the lesser privileged can do the same.
Jehan Nizar is a freelance lifestyle features writer, food blogger and core faculty at The Asian College of Journalism, Chennai
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