Bhatkal is a small port town on the Arabian Sea, near Mangaluru. Between the 8th and 15th centuries, it was one of the chief ports on the western coast, specializing in the trade of rice, sugar, spices and horses. Yemeni horses would be brought from the port of Hormuz in Iran to Bhatkal, and traded across the country. Over the centuries, traders from Iraq, Iran and Yemen settled in Bhatkal and formed the Navayath (newcomers) community. Some of them intermarried with the locals, many of whom belonged to the Jain community, and were influenced by their customs, languages and culture. This, in turn, led to a unique and multicultural food practice.

In recent times, however, whenever Bhatkal shows up in the news, it is with reference to radical Islamist elements and polarization between religious communities. As a result, the spotlight is rarely turned on this unique cuisine. Other than the Bhatkali biryani, little else is known and even less represented in mainstream restaurants, even in its home state of Karnataka.

The Alibaba Cafe and Restaurant on Bengaluru’s busy MM Road in Fraser Town is one of the few places that is changing this trend. The décor seems straight out of an Arabian Nights tale. Coloured glass lanterns hang from the ceiling and the mud-plastered walls are reminiscent of a Yemeni village home. There are Indian references too. The restaurant’s heavy wooden door has a lotus motif and large copper cooking pots in the corner look curiously Mangalurean. Shaad Hassan Damudi, the owner, greets visitors while taking orders on the phone in rapid-fire Konkani.

Damudi is from the Navayath community and his restaurant’s menu reflects his heritage. “What you see on the menu here is centuries of cultural amalgamation between the various communities, resulting in a very unique cuisine," Damudi explains. The meat-heaviness is also reflected in the star dish on the menu—the Shaiyyo biryani, made from vermicelli (shaiyyo) instead of rice. The vermicelli adds a uniquely Konkani touch to the distinctly Middle-Eastern flavours of the dish, featuring layers of delicately spiced meat and a generous helping of browned onions. Shaiyyo is sun-dried in vast quantities in early summer, so it can be prepared and enjoyed throughout the long west-coast monsoon. “Navayath cuisine tends to have milder flavours than traditional south Indian coastal cuisine," says Damudi. “We use local Byadagi red chillies, known for their bright red colour and slightly sweeter taste."

Any conversation about Bhatkali food always turns to Bhatkali biryani, made with basmati rice flavoured with saffron and whole garam masala. Tender pieces of mutton, chicken, fish or prawns are cooked separately with spices. Some even describe it as a korma and rice dish which is assembled in layers and finally topped with fried onions, curry or mint leaves.

Seafood is a staple of Bhatkali cuisine. Fish, prawns, mussels, clams, oysters and squid, available in plenty along the Konkan coast, are combined with local spices to create preparations like the laun miriya mhaure, where sliced fish (typically seer) are cooked in a traditional salt and red chilli paste, or shinonya nevri, steamed mussels stuffed with a spicy rice and coconut mixture.

Aftab Husain Kola, a Bhatkal native and a food and travel writer, says that although modern influences have crept into traditional Navayath cuisine, many of the old traditions of seasonal food have been preserved. He also throws light on some of the other Navayath home specialities like haldi pana nevri, rice pancakes steamed in turmeric leaves, and mudkuley, tiny steamed rice-flour balls in a delicately spiced curry. The community also gets together during weddings and festivals, for dawats or feasts which celebrate Navayath fare.

The wide range of Bhatkali desserts reflects the cultural intermingling of communities. Shaufa pana (dill leaves) feature in a variety of desserts, from poli (bread) to appo (pancakes), even puddings. Saat padra navariyo, a baked, layered dessert, reminiscent of Goa’s bebinca, and tariye khawras, a semolina, coconut and cashew pudding, are unique to the region. Some of the desserts have interestingly Middle-Eastern hybrid names too. Al basra poli and aflatoon poli are two such delicious concoctions—baked pancakes made with combinations of milk, coconut, egg and sugar. The Bhatkal version of kheer is godan—it has various manifestations, but the base always comprises coconut milk and jaggery.

The culinary diversity of this little coastal town is quite mind-boggling and more conversations about this and other aspects of Bhatkal’s rich culture could present an alternative narrative to those of terror and violence.

Aflatoon poli

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tbsp refined flour

2 cups milk

4 eggs, beaten

1-2 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp broken cashews

1 cup coconut milk

K cup condensed milk

2 tbsp ‘ghee’

Method

Add the refined flour to the milk and stir over a low flame until it thickens. Leave aside to cool. Add in eggs, sugar, nuts, coconut milk and condensed milk, and mix thoroughly.

Grease a baking tin with ‘ghee’ and pour the mixture into it. Bake at 160 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes. Check if it is done by inserting a toothpick into the pancake; it should come out clean. Remove from the baking tin and serve warm.

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