There is a Mattanchery-style valorous story behind Kayikka's debut as a biriyani-maker. It stems from the quintessential pride of a Kochiite. Kayikka is the hero in the tale that had compatriot chefs in a British military camp in another harbour city as the villains. Those were Raj-era days when rustic Kayikka was initially blank about life beyond the coasts of nearby Venduruthi railway bridge the ruling English had built during 1936-40. Yet, one day, he dared to take a train to faraway Bombay. In that western metropolis, Kayikka roamed a lot in search of a job before he found one as a cook in an army canteen.
Kayikka's culinary skills soon impressed his White bosses. The more they were impressed with the tastes of his dishes made from a range of condiments from Kashmiri saffron to Wayanadan ginger, the more jealous his fellow chefs became about the who had become Britishers' pet. When Kayikka found the fights with them no longer tolerable, the virtuous warrior quit his job and returned southward to his native land in Kerala.
Back in Kochi, Kayikka opened a restaurant. Hotel Rahmatulla. Mind you, this was in 1948, much before Kerala had found a place on the country's tourism map. Anyway, the biriyani at his restaurant began to spread a fragrance that caught the fancy of residents across Kochi. By word of mouth, the fame started wafting to places outside of the region. Traders who would pass by Kochi or unload their merchandise in the city used to make it a point to visit the nascent restaurant. There they saw the owner himself sitting by the oven at the kitchen and lighting fire using logs of woods inserted to the cavity beneath the vessels. Respect grew, and they started calling him Kayikka. The chief food the restaurant served gained a brand-like reputation: Kayikka's biriyani.
Kayikka is no more. Vellathil Kunju Kayi died 19 years ago. His business, though, thrives even in 2018, which is the 70th year of the restaurant's existence. Its flagship item continues to be Kayikka's biriyani. In between, the establishment opened a branch in downtown Ernakulam, adjacent to the famed Durbar Hall ground. Kayikka's business has made several strides right from its inception a year after Indian independence. So much for its history. Now, into contemporary matters.
Date with the rice
So you know the background. Come, enter Kayikka's restaurant. It's 11.30 in the forenoon; the breakfast crowd has thinned out. The busy place now is the kitchen. The biriyani containers are poised for their dum to open. Once the lids are taken off the mouths of the vessels, a stunning fragrance leaps around proudly. The rice and masala have undergone a special kind of steaming that forms the bottom secret of the 'technology' behind Kayikka's biriyani.
“You ought to have a mastery over the cutting the ingredients and grinding the spices,” points out Kayikka's son VK Mustafa. “Once the rice is sufficiently boiled, layer it with pineapple bits and then coriander leaves. Fried cashew and kishmish (raisins) are mixed into the rice and, along with it, ghee is poured. Plus a paste of coconut milk and badam (almonds).”
After that, the vessel is closed with a lid that ensures no let-up for the steam. It is sealed with maida paste. Once the vessel gets ample time for the rice inside to boil to the ideal degree, the embers from the oven are gathered to be spread over the lid of the vessel. A soft-spoken and grey-haired Mustafa, like his legendary father, capably keeps a mental clock that tells him the right time to open the dum of the biryani.
It was Kayikka who improvised his biryani with date fruits as the side dish. That occupies the slot of what is generally a loose salad comprising buttermilk and sliced onions. Strange, considering that instead of the hot indigenous lime pickle, one is served with the sweet fruit from the Arabian lands. This majorly separates Kayikka's biriyani from its counterpart in up-state Malabar.
“My father was someone who researched on biriyani till his last breath. We are plucking the fruits of the seeds he sowed in his lifetime,” notes bespectacled and balding Mustafa, giving all credit to his legacy to none other than Kayikka.
The picture that Kaiyikka's grandson paints about the restaurant that is now named Kayees can remind one of Ustad Hotel. Instead of Dulquer Salmaan in that 2012 Malayalam film, the central character here is an equally handsome Shabeer, fair-complexioned and slightly more sober-looking. The MBA graduate is keen to sustain the unique culinary heritage that has trickled down to him from his grandpa and father. The business management degree only added to his decision to run the restaurant oneself. “Must admit that I ventured in because my father insisted,” he shrugs with a smile, much like Faizi, the protagonist in Ustad Hotel that portrays a similar theme. “But I soon began sensing gratification in this job. No words can express my thanks to the happiness the customers here express after eating their biriyani.”
'Paradise for biriyani lovers', gushes a north Indian tourist on Trip Advisor, after a visit to Kayees Cafe. Worthy comment, coming as it is from someone from the land of biriyanis upcountry and amid the sight-seeing in tropical Kochi that must have given him so many impressionable memories. It underscores the organic link a traveller reaching Kochi can develop with a local biriyani that can't be found elsewhere.
Manipputtu, fish curry
It is not just Kayikka's biriyani the cafe serves today. There's a new-age item called Manipputtu on its menu. It's made by pressing the rice paste inside the tubular sevanazhi to let it fall thread-like on to rice powder. The preparation then gets a dash of grated coconut. The manipputtu goes well with chicken curry or beef curry.
Besides mutton and chicken that are members of the biriyani family, fish curry enjoys an exalted status on the Kayees menu. That is something Shabir avers that makes an excellent combo with porotta and puttu. “It's Mattanchery-style,” he adds, adding another episode to the fabled term.
Mattanchery, which is part of the erstwhile British Kochi, is layered by cosmopolitanism from time immemorial. The Portuguese, Dutch and the English have contributed to its culture over the past half a millennium. No wonder, Kochi's heritage tourism begins and ends with the bustling Mattanchery. Amongst its Dutch Palace, Jewish synagogue, Francis Xavier church and the local beach, Kayikka's biriyani also finds its deserving place among the tourism around.