By Aysha Mehmood
The old joke about Malabaris goes like this: “If we are not eating, we are busy deciding what to eat.” There is no hour in the day where food does not play a centre role in our lives.
Calicut, historically a successful port city, traces its roots to the story "Ten Jars of Pickle".
A very successful and prominent trader in the old city of Maskathiya (Muscat) divides his property among his two sons, giving them each ten jars of gold, and then sends them out into the world. One of them arrives at the coast of Malabar with his ten jars of gold. He meets the local chieftains and leaves one sealed jar with each of them. He tells them, "This is a jar of pickle that I cannot carry forth in this journey, but I shall come back for it on my next visit."
The Arab merchant returns the next year and collects all his jars. He discovers that nine jars now house a variety of pickles, ranging from mango to lime. Only one jar still has his gold and it comes from the then Zamorin – the Eralpaadu. The trader asks him what happened, and the Zamorin replies, "My port is that of truth and virtue."
Legend has it that the merchant decided to trade only with Calicut, and soon word spread through Arabia that this is the port of truth. Very soon, world over, Calicut became the most sought-after port that traded in spices, cloth and precious gems.
Ophir is a mystical port mentioned in the Book of Genesis as a vibrant, opulent place where huge vessels docked every three years to carry spices, peacocks, ivory, gold, silver, sandalwood, pearls and monkeys for King Solomon. One of the many theories is that Ophir is Beypore. Though historians are divided about where Ophir actually is, the mystical port has captivated our imagination.
A port where the world came to trade goods, stories and cultures – Ofir Fest envisions to bring this alive now.
Malabar food has, over the many years, been synonymous with the Moplah cuisine. Tell someone you are from Kozhikode/Kannur/Kasaragod and they immediately start talking to you about biryani.
But the walls of every Malabari house have a different tale to tell. Around 30 different communities of all imaginable ethnicities have lived in Calicut for centuries – Bhatkally, Bohra, Anglo-Indian, Kutchi Memons, Khalasis, Ossans, Gouda Saraswath Brahmins, Konkani Mangloreans, Goan Konkanis, Thiyya, Iyer, Nair, Paniya, Sindhi, Gujarati, Jain, Parsi, Marwadi, Marathi, Chettiars ... And these cultures intermingled and the biggest beneficiary of this marriage was food.
Packed with flavour and aroma, these dishes contain Calicut's true recipes – the ones that evolved in having lived together through a thousand seasons.
The pillowy havens that are Kanchipuram idlis soaked in sambhar that the Chettiars sent across. The Bafakhi poli that stood shoulder to shoulder with our chattipathiri on the tables of Bhatkallys. The aroma that spread through our mohallas when the Gujarati kitchens made mohanthal. The meat puli and the sannaas from the Anglo-Indian houses. The beautifully steamed khottos in baskets made of jackfruit leaves along with fiery red hinga tamboli made in the Konkani halls. The festivals where Nair uncles and aunties stuffed everyone’s faces with karelappam, neyyappam and pazham nurukku. The sraavu curry and puzhukku that all of us sat down to eat on evenings before a wedding at the Thiyya houses. And the not-so-common Moplah dishes of kunjan urappichath, vazhakkaseera, panchaarpaata, konganpathiri.
Team Ofir is a group of Calicophiles, watching all the dishes being cooked, tasting them and documenting them.
Ofir, the fest, was the brainchild of Naseeb Mehmood – the designer who has made reviving Calicut his life goal. People around him added to his dream, which is now sprouting wings.
As we approached the communities to come help us, we were able to recreate that mythical Ophir port – bustling with ideas, recipes, stories and languages.
I will end this with my favourite story from the days we were preparing for this festival. One of our main concerns was how each community would take to food that was culturally and religiously sacrosanct or taboo to them. The discussions began and we wondered if we should separate the vegetarians from the non-vegetarians. We worked out the logistics and we were happy.
We sat around after the meeting, sharing stories of food and our memories associated with them. The Anglo-Indian representative, Victor, started talking about sanaas and sorpotel. “Oh, I am telling you, once you have tasted our pork sorpotel, you will never want to eat any other kind of meat again. But we respect your traditions and cultures. So I guess we will make do with beef or mutton,” he laughed.
After the meeting, one of the people whom we had affectionately nicknamed ‘vegetarian ambassador’ went up to Victor. “Mr Victor,” he said, “you must make pork, especially if it is your traditional dish. From the way you were talking about it, I could see how passionate you are about the dish. Please do justice to your culture and make the dish.”
The clamour grew – cutting across religions – asking for pork sorpotel to be served. “Don’t let us rain on your parade,” one voice cried out, while the other exclaimed, “You must make what you are proud of, and then serve it proudly!”
And that, my friends, is Calicut in a nutshell.
Ofir begins on February 8th and ends on the 11th. Over 150 dishes will be served across the four days. Sessions, symposiums, songs and stories – all about Calicut – is part of the programme.