The Malabar Biryani

Hari Nair in his blog mentions about his newly acquired taste of the ever famous Malabar or Calicut Biryani and wondered about its origins and preservation. Thanks to CKR for the link. Well I do not want to get into the cooking aspects and recipe preservation part myself; others like Indiandoc have done quite a bit of that over the years. Youtube has some hotel or cooks doing it (mass production). But really, it is very difficult to replicate the taste one gets in hotels for various reasons though the general Malabar Biryani cooking methods can be found in Ummi Abdullah’s books.

My sons maintain that the Sagar (next to KSRTC stand, not the new one) version is the best, my brother in law states that The old ‘Bombay hotel’ near the Calicut Beach is the best, others say that Sain-ithatha’s at the Beach has a better variety, yet others mention versions by the Paragon near the P&T office or the refurbished Top Form on SM street. Anyway sitting many thousands of miles away from those divine culinary delights, I decided to carry out a little research into this food which is a family favorite. Unfortunately this is a non vegetarian dish and I have to date not come across a Malabar vegetable Biryani.

The word Biryani is from the Persian word beryā(n) which means "fried" or "roasted". There are of course many kinds of biryanis in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and almost all of them have an Arabic, Persian or Afghan origin. Many stories abound of it having come down the passes with the first invaders like Timur the lame or across the water with the early sailors and settlers.

It has been a Mediterranean area dish from historic times and some say that ‘Nomads’ buried an earthen pot full of meat, rice and spices in a pit surrounded by the warm sands of the desert and eventually the pot was dug up containing the earliest version of the 'Cooked Biryani'. While that was one version, another puts it that Mumtaz, wife of Shah Jahan, not happy with the nutrition level of what was served to the army invented this dish as a "complete meal" to feed them, as a kind of fast food. In Arab countries they had the Kabsa ceremonial lunch where flavored rice with meat is the main fare. Such rice dishes in my opinion form the basis of the Malabar Biryani which therefore is assumed to have been brought across the Indian Ocean by Arab Seafarers and traders. I am almost sure that a parent of the Malabar Biryani is the Hadhrami Mandi, for Yemeni Hadhramis’ were some of the early forefathers of the Moplah’s of Malabar.

The cuisine of Malabar, also referred as ‘Mappila cuisine’, boasts of a distinct flavor and taste that has been influenced by the Arabs as well as by the locally available spices, products and culinary traditions. Traditional Malabar cuisine is mildly spicy, characterized by the use of spices like black pepper, clove, cardamom, and almost always, cooked in fragrant coconut oil. The meat is cooked tender, the rice flaky and delicately spiced with the right blend of seasonings, to leave a lingering taste in the mouth. The papads are fried in coconut oil, and the biryani is a softer variety, light on the stomach and really has little relation in terms of taste to the other biryanis in the country.

I am sure there are many biryanis, but some of the popular biryani’s are Hyderabadi, Kutch, Lahori, Malabar, Bombay, Lucknowi, Chetti and Bhatkal. As one can imagine, the differing ingredients and differing methods of preparation constitute the many types and flavors. Each person likes one or the other, be it the highly flavored Bombay Biryani or the lightly flavored Malabar Biryani. One who is interested in some details of the various types can check the linked Indiamarks site.

The Mappilas of Calicut have perfected many variations of this biriyani – rice, spices and yogurt cooked with mutton, fish, chicken, eggs or shrimp, to name a few. The ingredients change with the types of meat and could have tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, ghee, spices, yoghurt, coriander, and so on…Biryani is also cooked in differing methods. Sometimes the meat and masala and the rice (not the long basmati, but the shorter variety) are cooked separately. They are then layered & steamed, ensuring that the flavors of the meat completely blend with the rice. Sometimes saffron and fried onions are added to provide additional flavor. Sometimes they are cooked separately and mixed later.

As all of us know, rice is the staple diet in Kerala. The Muslims of Kerala first perfected Ghee rice or Neychoru with a separate curry. It could have been that the Biryani evolved later where the two are mixed, in differing ways. Many say that Biryani is a mughal dish, but the mughal variety is only one of the many as explained earlier. Like Ravi said, a great Hyderabadi biryani is as much worth killing for as its great Kozhikodan equivalent is worth dying for. According to Tahseen, the Moplah biryani follows its own style of making too. “The water isn’t drained out but retained and even the meat is allowed to soak and steam in the water unlike in the Kozhikode regions where it is poured out”

To make a good biryani, the vessels (aluminum or cast iron chembu’s), rice (Wyanad Kaima, Jeerakashala or Basmati), the ghee or coconut oil…all have to be right, just like the fire that is usually a slow burning coconut husk fire.. For Calicut Biryani, the Handi is placed on the embers produced by coconut shells and the rice should never be overcooked. Accompaniments – Kerala papadam (not appalam or the Lijjat variety), Biriyani Chammandi (coconut, little vinegar, chilli & salt) and Karakka (Arabian dates) pickles. Now as I wrote earlier, you cannot complete a proper Malabar Biryani meal without Biryani Chaya – You can possibly still find it at the old Sagar.

Ummi Abdulla herself has this comment - Cooked rice was the staple diet of Kerala. Boiled rice was cooked in the usual way but the average Moplah household preferred par-boiled rice to raw rice. Fried rice called neichoru or ghee rice, was a delicacy meant for special occasions. This dish has now "graduated" into biryani or pulav which must have originally come from Samarkhand with the Moghuls and migrated through the Deccan and the rule of the Arcot Nawabs into Kerala. The Moplah genius has developed many variants of the biryani, some of which are spicy hot to suit local palates. I would maintain that it possibly came through the Yemeni Arabs who first came to Malabar.

Look at some of the Middle Eastern brethren to the Biryani, the Iranian versions and the Arabian Kabsa or Mandi. The nearest relative to the Calicut Biryani is the Arabic Kabsah or Yemeni mandi, and eating a kabsah lunch is an experience in itself. I will never forget the one I went through, together with a few Swedish colleagues of mine at an Arab’s feast, while working in Saudi Arabia. The great big plate in the center with the cooked and stuffed goat surrounded by the fragrant biryani style Kabsah rice. The host picking out the succulent parts of the goat and tossing it across to the startled Swede, and his having to figure out how to use his fingers to eat the rice and meat, casting a side glance to see that we were enjoying it, at the same time sitting cross legged with aching knees, bursting hamstrings and trousers that could soon split at its seams due to the squatting position… It is a priceless memory. I still enjoy telling that story in full, the way it should be told – as my wife puts it ‘with all the pidippum thongalum’ and… (Some masala added to the true bits & loaded with lots of exaggeration)…

I am feeling hungry now; have to figure out the best way to persuade my wife to cook one this week end. She always makes it as we all like it, and jusssht perfect…

Malabar Biryani –
Sri Pillai

Himmler and his Aryan theories

It was after 1936. Heinrich Himmler, the one man responsible for the murder of over half a million people, had become the Reichsfuhrer and had just founded the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral heritage) department in the Nazi machinery. The purpose of the institution was to promote the glorious Aryan heritage of the German people. He had modeled SS on the Kshatriya Hindu Warrior caste and had been carrying the leather bound Bhagavad Gita in his pocket for guidance, reading it every day night before sleeping. He even considered Hitler the reincarnation of Krishna.

Do you think all this sounds preposterous? It is true. Read on to understand how an evil man manipulated a sacred text convincing himself and many hundreds of people who worked with him.

Having this mystic understanding of the Aryan origin, during his early years, Himmler found a man to check out the soundness of his theory and look around the Himalayas. That man was Ernst Schaffer and his task was to go to the highlands of the Himalayas and find the links to the Central Asian origin of the Aryan race. Schaffer’s destination – Tibet!!

Why Tibet? The Hindus themselves had believed in a place beyond the Himalayas as the abode of Gods and the country was called Vidyadhara. The Tibetans believed in Shambala (a mysterious location in Tibet) where Brahmins once lived and eventually converted to Buddhists to create a perfect land. The Panchem Lamas are considered the reincarnations of the rulers of Shambala. Many people added spice to this concoction. The founder of the theosophical movement Mme Blavatsy was one, who created the ‘great white brotherhood’ and who believed that the Himalayas was the ‘Veil of Isis’ and that the masters of the brotherhood lived in Tibet.

Many years ago, around 1786, British Lawyer William Jones had figured out that Sanskrit was a fine language, better & older than Latin and perfect compared to Greek. Based on this and the Tibetan myths, the German elite decided on accepting the theory of the origin of history in Asia with the languages of India and not the language of the Middle East (i.e. Hebrew as pictured in the Bible). F Shelegel argued that Sanskrit was indeed the language of the nobles and the elite Aryans. He concluded that the noble race from Asia moved to Egypt, the Middle East & Scandinavia. They were the Aryans or Nordics (association to N India & N Europe). It was a youthful race, tall, blond (how that sounded acceptable, I do not know), generous, brave and creative! This was the myth that perpetuated the origins of Nazi Germany. Another version ran thus - An elite priesthood had escaped from the lost continent of Atlantis and fled to the Himalayas, and their successors were the Aryans. Others, too, proposed these Aryans, or Nordics, were descended from godlike men and had once lived in the icy north (Himmler who believed in the ‘varna’ concept of Hinduism chose this story and deputed people to look for Atlantis in Antartica!! Broadly, in the ‘varna’ concept the fair skin was placed above the ‘avarna’ and ‘savarna’ dark skinned types). These were the people Himmler was interested in. Perhaps there were still traces of them in TIbet?

But having decided on their possible links and lineage, what was to be done next? That is where somehow, unfortunately, the Bhagavad Gita came in to enable Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful; man of Nazi Germany.

Herman Gundert was back from Malabar with firsthand information about his involvement in the Basel Mission. He had done fine work that lives to this day. His daughter Amrie (Born in Kerala) gave birth to Gundert’s grandson Herman Hesse had published some of his fine books with an Indian base (he started getting interested in India & Hinduism around 1895-1900-The interest in Hinduism arose somewhat from his mother’s lack of acceptance of Hinduism, as ardent Christians missionaries). He read the Gita in 1904 and was deeply influenced.

Demian & Sidharta (I have read the latter, not the former – an interesting book) -These Hesse books were the ones that guided German thought and these took the young Himmler’s mind eastward. He was thus led to reading the German translation of Bhagavad Gita and was mesmerized by the Vedic times in India and the ancient caste system, especially the role of Kshatriya’s & Brahmin’s. It was only after this that the Nazi party came into being and soon Himmler joined it. By now he had decided that Christianity was another manifestation of Judaism. He was intent on finding the real roots of the German people and their ancient gods. Perhaps the answers lay in India and beyond the Himalaya’s in Tibet?

To find the links & answers the Ahnenerbe section was created and to fund it they even got a special illuminated bicycle reflector manufactured (Liobl created it and half the revenue was given to Himmler) and made it mandatory for every German bike. But Himmler wanted to make the Ahnenerbe a credible research institute. For this he needed to enlist ambitious scientists, such as Schäfer, to add prestige to the enterprise

Strangely while Hitler believed that the Indians deserved to be ruled by the British, Himmler believed that any condescending comments about Tibetans and Indians be removed from the film that Schaffer produced on his return. He also believed that these ‘dark skinned people’ duly spoilt by the intermixing of fair Aryan’s with lesser people (something he strived later to avoid in Germany – and to keep the nation pure) will one day be subjects of the Reich.

Gunther, another Nazi academic had by then determined that the Nordic people originated from NW Europe, and later moved through Persia to India. They created the Veda in India and mingled with the lesser people. He states finding evidence in the Vedas which lament about the mingling of races and resulting in the creation of the “varna’ caste system. Some traces of this Nordic blood could perhaps be found in Tibet and this was what Schaffer’s & his colleague were to determine.

Schaffer spent three years on this trail, starting out in 1939 and returning from Tibet in 1942 with anthropologic data, specimens, huge amounts of photographs and movie films and some animals (Tibetan dogs for Himmler and Hitler - Hitler’s gift died enroute). At the end all this effort culminated in a propaganda documentary called ‘Geheimnins Tibet’, which amongst other things Tibetan in content, was a swipe at the British for imposing alien forms of government over India’s ancient civilization.. According to Schaffer, the original Tibetan warrior race was corrupted by Lamaism (weakened by religion- In reality the warrior race of the 6th century Tibet became Buddhist by the 8th century and eventually renounced their warrior ways & settled into a peaceful life). Sadly for Nazis other than seeing some tall Tibetans, taking a number of measurements and seeing Swastika’s on home & temple walls, the group achieved little to establish a firm link (many others talk about another ulterior motive for the mission - that Schaffer was to spy, meddle and turn Tibetan thought against the British like Lawrence did with the Arabs) .

Let us now look at the other Hindu symbol that the Nazi’s used, the swastika. The word “Swastika” comes from the Sanskrit svastika - “su” meaning “good,” “asti” meaning “to be,” and “ka” as a suffix. It’s called Swastika when the limbs are bent towards the right, and Suavastika when they are turned to the left. It is believed that the first represents Lord Ganesha, while the second represents goddess Kali. According to other schools of thought, the first stands for the sun, for light and life; the second stands for night and destruction. Madame Blavatsky first saw the significance of the symbol, and incorporated it into the seal of the Theosophical Society to signify the harmony of universal movement. However, there is another explanation of the left- and right-handed swastikas: the left-handed (clockwise-turning) symbol represents the migration of the ancient Aryan Race from its homeland at the North Pole, while the right-handed (counter-clockwise-turning) symbol - the one used by the Nazis - represents the destiny of the Aryans to return to their spiritual centre at the South Pole as I described previously. According to the occult historian Francis King, when Hitler called for suggestions for a banner, all of the submissions included a swastika. The one Hitler finally chose had been designed by Dr Friedrich Krohn, a dentist from Sternberg. However, the design incorporated a clockwise-turning swastika, symbolizing good fortune, harmony and spirituality. Hitler decided to reverse the design, making the swastika counter-clockwise, symbolizing evil and black magic. Here again, there is the problem of defining what is a right-and left-handed swastika

The Bhagavad Gita had been much talked about in the West. It was admired by Aldous Huxley, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Herman Hesse and many others. Himmler was led into it even further by Hauer’s version and explanations. Himmler once said “I marvel at the wisdom of the founders of Indian religions.” Himmler a believer of astrology & occult, apparently told his personal masseur Felix Kersten that he always carried with him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita because it relieved him of guilt about implementing the final solution; he felt that like the warrior Arjuna in that he was simply doing his duty without attachment to his actions. He also quoted the sentence that meant – It is decreed that whenever men lose respect for law & truth, and the world is given over to injustice, I will be born anew. That he believed was Krishna, reincarnated as Hitler!! Himmler also said the Kshatriya’s had conquered India, so that is what we must be (Devil’s disciples – Read). Summarizing, Himmler's attraction to the Gita was that it allowed him to separate his duty from his actions and thus ease the burden of the Final Solution

Strangely the people of real & even more recent Aryan origin in Germany at that time were amongst the 26000 or so Sindhi (Sinti) and Roma Gypsies who had moved to Europe from the Indian Sindh areas (they started out in the 11th century with the Ottoman armies). The Gypsies of pure blood were to put in an open zoo and the others were castrated according to Himmler’s plan. However Bormnan and the other Nazi elite did not agree and all the Gypsies were doomed (Rosenbaum). Himmler ordered the deportation of Gypsies and part-Gypsies to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Berger kept a low profile for more than a decade till law caught up. Wienert, Krause and Geer who accompanied Scahffer quietly slipped back into academic life. Himmler apparently committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill while in British custody in May 1945. Schaffer died after a long tenure as an academic in 1992.

The whole story has many interesting tidbits. Bruno Berger, a member of the Schafer party met S C Bose in Calcutta (again in Berlin in 1941). Stalin had during that period remarked that it was ridiculous for a few 100 Englishmen to dominate India. Hitler suggested then that - Russia will be our India.
Himmler was a horrible man misguided by the evil in his mind and one who sought to hide behind misquoted sentences from noble scriptures and occult myths.

How sad the course of history is sometimes, two people who read the Gita and who died by it were the noble Gandhi & the evil Himmler, look at how they understood the same scripture so utterly & completely differently!!

Himmler’s Crusade – Christopher Hale
Heinrich Himmler - Roger Manvell, Heinrich Fraenkel
The Charlemagne Pursuit – Steve Berry (provides a fictional account of the Ahnenerbe search in the Antartic about the Atlantis myth)
Gitapic – courtesy
Oppenheimer & Gita
Gita, Guru, Ekta and Ecevit..

July 20th, 1969 >39 years ago

We were a little late to school that day. I used to take ages to eat and mom’s insistence that I eat the entire heap of rice and curry before we took the 1130 KBS bus from Koduvayur to Palakkad, was sure to make us miss the bus. My brother had already finished his food and was waiting for me to finish. After that was done, we would pick up out aluminum school cases (you don’t even see them today – cases that effectively shut out the rain and held our books safely!) and rush up the street to the side of the TSM Beedi making shop in the middle of Koduvayur town, a location which also served as the bus stop.

The street was full of activity when we got there, as a retail market place where carts and lorries from various other smaller towns had congregated to collect their quotas of commodities. Tamil and Malayalam were freely used, with a smatter of the special ‘rowther’ brand Malayalam from the Muslims left behind by the Tippu’s horse brigades. They were traders now, I guess. If you craned your neck you could see the butcher at work on the hanging carcass, stripping the goat’s skin and you could see the chettiar’s & mannadiar’s busy at their shops. Large bags of red chillies, coriander, vegetables, rice,, pulses and the such were off loaded and reloaded, the air was dense with all the acrid dust and smells, but as bright eyed enthusiastic kids, we enjoyed watching it all for those few minutes till the bus screeched to a stop. Wow! The powerful sound of the airbrake amidst all the noise of the bazaar when applied by KBS driver Balan made us feel that we should all become bus drivers when we grew up.

I loved life in those days, after years of loneliness as a kid growing up in Calicut, I was now back with my family – dad, mom, sister and brothers. Dad had to leave the estates and move to warmer environs after a couple of heart attacks. It was simply great, enjoying life with my brother, and dad used to teach us cricket – ex Presidency college cricket player and all that. As my dad was a doctor, the house was always full of people, especially the clinic portion out in front. Koduvayur was a bustling little town and there were only a couple of doctors, so the patients were a good number trooping in and out at all hours.

Soon we were admitted to the Motilal School in Palakkad, opposite the famous Victoria College. And my brother and I would bus it back & forth every day, middle school was conducted in an afternoon shift. What days they were, how we learned smoking ‘cool’ mentholated cigarettes, and chewing paan (read an earlier blog on Paan). Anyway on that fateful day, we reached school a few minutes early, teamed up with some friends and ate a Paan in ‘shtyle’ from the shop across the road and trudged back to school, but that day the teacher had enough. We got into class a few minutes late and she spotted the red tinged lips and tongues of the little ruffians. Immediately we were hauled to the headmistress’s office.

As we waited, the school sound system was blaring out the VOA radio commentary. Can you guess what it was? Armstrong’s landing on the moon.

Everybody was beaming; a man had landed on the moon. I had only a vague understanding of what space and spaceships were all about then, but the bigger issue was clear - we had people going to the moon. My mind took flight; I listened to the English words, understanding bits and pieces of the American accent. We did know a little about America, from Geography and the big Sears catalog (read an earlier blog on the sears catalog) that my uncle had once brought back from his travails. And I thought, I will go there one day…

The day was July 20, 1969 – A day when Armstrong landed on the moon and said ‘One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind’, kindling my interest in flight and space. We read about it, and we saw grainy newsreels much later in movie theaters.

It was when the peon pulled us both into the headmistress’s office that reality hit us, and hit us hard…maan, we were in deep trouble, hauled in front of the headmistress. She was very abrupt. She simply said, bring one of your guardians tomorrow and we will discuss this further.

With great trepidation, we got back home with heads hung low. Mom and dad were furious, but dad would not scold us since he himself loved paan and had given us bits now & then. My aunt who was around, offered to meet the headmistress as they were old school mates or something. Thus ended that fateful day for us but an important day for mankind.

In any case, the following day went by not too badly for us; we were given a final warning & lightly punished.

While the world and America rejoiced, some Saudi preachers were denouncing all this as a cheap Hollywood trick, so much so that to this day many think that the moon landing was a hoax. And there are a lot out there who try to prove it, like this site. It does provide compulsive reading, if you glance through them. But this other site provides some explanations, which I should point out are also not very convincing. Conspiracy theorists will of course continue their work & studies….

Anyway India is planning a manned trip in 2020, to the moon (following unmanned missions), and hopefully that will be televised from start to finish. A Chinese trip might precede it, but it won’t be televised in real time, for sure. Until then, we will continue to believe in Armstrong’s & Aldrin’s legacy.

BTW – some trivia – Armstrong actually said “a small step for ‘a’ man (meaning himself)…...” The ‘a’ was dropped out in official transcripts as it was quite inaudible due to heavy static. I heard he was pretty miffed about it!!

A good account of the event is linked here.

Listen to a lovely song titled ‘Armstrong’, if any of you like Lobo - Kent Lavoie, the singer…