I grew up in a town whose claim to fame is that the first cake in India was baked in a small bakery here; the first cricket match in India played in a stadium downtown; and, lastly but most importantly, the town that lends its name to the famed Tellicherry pepper. Coming from a family of avid bakers, I am less excited about our place in cricket history than I am about our standing in the world of cakes. But in truth, it is the story of pepper that has shaped the lives of the people of not just Tellicherry but much of Kerala.

It goes back to 1000 BC when King Solomon’s fleet is said to have arrived at Beypore, near Kozhikode, in search of spices including pepper. The Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and, finally, the British landed on these shores, lured by the promise of exotic spices. Pepper was used extensively in wealthy Roman households, and came to be considered as a kind of commodity money, earning the moniker ‘black gold’. In return, the Malabar Coast prospered not just from the money, but from the wealth of new ideas and traditions that the foreigners brought with them. Islam, for example, reached Kerala within a generation of the Prophet’s death, centuries before it arrived in Delhi. This provides better insight into why not just the first mosque, but also the first synagogue and church in India were built in Kerala.

Kerala’s rich past is mostly hidden under layers of modernisation. But if you pay close attention, vestiges of its cosmopolitan history are to be found everywhere. For example, the lexicon that borrows from Arabic and Portuguese, the famed Chinese fishing nets of Fort Kochi, the architecture which has seamlessly incorporated both Arab and Chinese elements to give mosques, temples and tharavaads (traditional homes) a distinct style and so on. However, the most telling details are found in the food. The Mappilas, descendants of Arab traders who married and had families in Kerala, have a vibrant cuisine that works almost like a map disclosing the various invaders and traders who came to Malabar in search of pepper.

The most evident influence on Mappila food is Arab — the aleesa , a wheat-and-meat dish slow-cooked with spices bears an uncanny resemblance to the Arab and Persian dish harisa . Muttamaala , a dessert made by cooking thin strands of egg yolk in a vat of boiling sugar syrup, is reminiscent of fios de ovos , variations of which are found in many other former Portuguese colonies around the world as well. The British stew indisputably inspired the erachi (mutton) ishtu that is dear to every Mappila heart. Ironically, however, pepper is not much used in Mappila cuisine even if it brought the world to the coast where it grows.

The one exception is the erachi ishtu , which uses pepper with a fairly heavy hand. Unlike the ishtu of the Syrian-Christian community in south Kerala, the Mappila ishtu does not use coconut milk. Instead, it gets its earthiness and complexity solely from crushed Tellicherry black pepper.

It is fitting then that when I started to develop a taste for cooking, erachi ishtu was the first traditional dish I learned to make. One night, my mother, my aunt Rafia and I huddled over the stove in her kitchen, with the smell of onions sautéing in ghee filling the air. With my aunt and mother firing a million instructions per minute, lest I bring shame to the community by making an ishtu that was anything less than outstanding, I furiously scribbled down every word they said. I went as far as sketching the vessel it was cooked in (just in case I forgot what a pressure cooker looked like?).

If you are curious to try out this simple but delicious dish, whose effort to pleasure ratio is 1:10, I have included the recipe. Although it is not traditional to make the stew in a pressure cooker, it has been grudgingly accepted by the matriarchs of the community as a more efficient and easier alternative, without compromising on flavour. If it is good enough for aunt Rafia, it is good enough for me.

Erachi ishtu (mutton stew)


* 1/2 kg mutton, cubed

* 3 large onions sliced

* 2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered

* 5-6 green chillies, sliced

* 1 1/2 cups hot water

* 1 inch ginger, crushed

* 1 tbsp ghee

* A handful coriander leaves chopped

* 1 tsp Tellicherry black pepper, powdered

* Salt to taste

* Squeeze of lime juice


1. Heat a pressure cooker on low flame, and add the ghee to it.

2. Now add the onions and sauté until transparent.

3. Add green chillies and ginger and continue sautéing for 2-3 minutes.

4. Add the mutton and a dash of salt and mix well.

5. Pour 3/4 cup of the hot water and place the lid with the whistle on. After one whistle (about a minute), reduce the heat and let it cook for 10 minutes. Remove lid carefully, and gently mash the onions with the back of a ladle, add the potatoes, rest of the water and close the pressure cooker once again for two whistles.

6. Take off the lid and, if you like the stew to be a little thicker, let it cook for a few minutes with the lid off.

7. Now add the Tellicherry black pepper, adjust seasoning, and garnish with coriander.

8. Squeeze a little lime over it and serve hot.

Aysha Tanya is a Kannur-based food writer