Sniff the aroma of traditions at Hotel Sapphire in Thrissur

Photo: Hotel Sapphire website

Even today Assu Haji's biriyani tastes the same as it did 47 years ago and the aroma from his biriyani cauldron is the same as it was 47 years ago when he put it on the hearth for the first time. Assu Haji had said then "Even if my biriyani sells less, it should maintain the same taste and flavour. I should not disappoint anyone." From the first day, Assu Haji's hotel serves food with love and happiness. The tradition continues even after 47 years. That is why the taste of the biriyani and chicken fry served at Sapphire hotel on the railway station road, Thrissur lingers not just on the tongue but also on the mind.

It was Thacharakkal Abdul Salim from Thalassery who married Naseema, the daughter of Assu Haji. Though Salim had no connection with hotel business, he learnt the business after coming here. Hotel Sapphire is now managed by Salim and Faisal, son of Assu Haji. Assu Haji had passed on his innate skill to the next generation when he was alive. Assu Haji served as the cook of a Saudi King before coming back to Thrissur and deciding to start the hotel business. A building attached to the royal house of Kochi was taken on rent. Hotel Sapphire passed through several bad phases before emerging on the path of success happiness today.

Hotel Sapphire was operating from one of the dining halls the Kochi royal family had built. There is a hole on the eastern wall of this structure. This hole was for the women of that era to offer prayers to Lord Hanuman at the nearby Hanuman temple before the meals. Assu Haji had insisted for this hole to never be covered. The building was later bought and several renovation works were carried out but the hole is still safe there. Assu Haji reminds everyone that even the small openings for prayers should not be closed.

By 7 am, the chicken for the biriyani go up the hearth. Only the chicken pieces cut that morning are used. The biriyani rice with a unique aroma comes from Siliguri. For decades now, the same brand of rice has been used. Each sack of rice is inspected closely. Rice is boiled using firewood while the chicken is fried using cooking gas. Later, these are mixed and are let on the 'dum' with ember on the top of the cauldron. Only one cauldron of biriyani is cooked at a time and so all the serving is fresh. It is never served reheated.

Another successful item served at the Sapphire hotel is the fried chicken with parathas. The chicken is never fried in the same oil again and again. The taste of the fried chicken is a mix of fresh oil, fresh chicken, and the masala that goes into the meat. The smell of Hotel Sapphire is the smell of these fresh chicken being fried. By 7.30 am, chilli fish curry, paratha, pathiri, and idiyappam are ready. Very often we see people coming from Bengaluru etc waiting impatiently for the fish curry. This fish curry is nostalgic for many.

There is a deep well in the hotel premises. It is a well with a bottom clad with the planks from a gooseberry tree preserved since the time of kings. For cooking, only water from this well is used. The prayer that 'none should go unsatisfied' floats in the Sapphire air. The result is the everlasting taste of biriyani that lingers on the tongue of the patrons. It was Assu Haji who enticed Thrissur into biriyani.