In my family we consider Eid as an occasion to get together to do what we do best – eat elaborate meals, have long, detailed discussions about elaborate meals, and drink several cups of tea in between those elaborate meals.
Most Eids begin with what is known as mutta surka, one of the many quintessential dishes that the Malabari Muslims, the Mappila’s, have invented using rice flour and eggs. It has been said that if you give a Mappila a few eggs and rice flour, you’ll be presented with a feast with twenty different dishes. If you add bananas to the list of ingredients, you’ll get another fifty.
As it is, mutta surka is the staple Eid breakfast at my parent’s. Eggs and rice flour are beaten into a flurry and deep-fried until the little blobs puff up to their full might and turn golden. It is served with – you guessed it – more eggs. The eggs are a Malabari version of burji, and are scrambled with onions, fennel seeds and green chillies. A true breakfast of champions, this meal sets the indulgent and celebratory tone for the day. To reinforce the feeling of merry making, a round of tea or chaya as we call it, is to be had.
A few hours in, and many glasses of tea later, it is time for what I suspect is everyone’s favourite part of the day – lunch. Mutton biryani is the piece de résistance, with sweet and spicy date pickle and coconut chutney playing supporting roles. If you ask me, the hush that falls over the room as aunts, and uncles, and cousins tuck into their plate of biryani might just be the most sacred part of the day. The silence, however, is short lived because invariably someone wants to know what’s for dessert.
What follows the biryani and dessert is the rarely acknowledged but crucial part of the meal, without which no feast is complete – a glass of sulaimani tea. Biryani and sulaimani. The names even rhyme. One of the most complex mappila dishes, followed by the simplest. No matter how elaborate the meal, how many different types of desserts were on offer, or that every guest has been stuffed to an inch of his or her life, there is still a little room left for a sulaimani.
Besides being a postlude to a heavy lunch, it is privy to every joy and celebration that takes place. Served in tiny glasses, usually with cardamom, occasionally with a few strands of saffron, but always with lime, it involves steeping black tea leaves, sweetening it, and brewing it until it reaches the right shade of golden. The colour of a deep sunset, this is the tea that smells of celebration. At weddings, huge vats of black tea are constantly simmering away on the fire, and small paper cups of the piping-hot tea are passed around throughout the day even in the peak of summer.
One of the most popular Malayalam movies in recent times, Ustad Hotel, is about a Malabari Muslim family that like every other self respecting Malabari Muslim family is obsessed with eating well. In one of the most endearing scenes in the movie, the protagonist, a young aspiring chef straight out of college, sits by the sea with his grandfather, spending quality time with him for the first time in his adult life. Between them sits a kettle of piping hot sulaimani.
The movie and this particular scene inspired a social initiative in Kozhikode, the town the movie was set it, to provide quality food for anyone in need of a hot meal. The name of the project? Operation Sulaimani. The unsung hero of the Malabari meal, it appears that a cup of tea can change lives.