It's easy to get me started on food from the Malabar region in Kerala. Kozhikode is one of my favourite cities for food anywhere in India. It was an evening snack that triggered a fascinating conversation. Except this conversation happened in Thiruvananthapuram, at the southern end of Kerala. I've spent many summer school vacations in the Kerala capital, and food was always a big part of those vacations, especially snacks at teatime. There are few states in India that do teatime better, and it's not just the invigorating tea that we're talking about. Unnakaya is one of those legendary teatime staples, especially around Kozhikode and Thalasseri. I bit into these spindle-shaped wonders at the Iftar feast at the Hyatt Regency Trivandrum, the city's all-new luxury hotel.
Malabar Cafe is the all-day diner at the Hyatt Regency Trivandrum. This restaurant showcases some of the finest dishes from across Kerala. The restaurant's Iftar promotion puts the spotlight on some of the dishes from North Kerala. The Unnakaya is one of those sweet treats that are served during Iftar, weddings, and other special occasions. There are many theories that surround the origin and nomenclature of this dish. Chef Unni Vivekanandhan, who is one of the local cuisine experts at the Hyatt Regency Trivandrum (see recipe), tells me that Unnakaya itself is derived from the Arabic word "unnah," which means "stuffing." There's another version that I heard in Zain's - one of my favourite restaurants in Kozhikode.
Some of the locals in Kozhikode also tell me that the snack was brought to these shores by Arab traders many centuries ago. It's also in Kozhikode that I learned that the Unnakaya might have a Portuguese connection. That's the thing about the food of the Mappila Muslims from North Kerala, many of their dishes like the Unnakaya and Mutta Mala have intriguing backstories. One theory is that the name Unnakaya comes from its physical resemblance to silk cotton or kapok seed pods. The local name for these pods is unnakka or unnamurika. I've heard multiple names to refer to this dish, from Unnaka to Kai porichathu to Kai Ada to Unnakaya.
While we can debate the nomenclature, there's little argument about how scrumptious this snack is. The version at the Hyatt Regency Trivandrum stays true to the version I've tried in Kozhikode. It's essentially mashed plantain (usually the Nendran Banana from Kerala that received its GI tag in 2015) that's used for this snack. The mashed banana gets a flavor and texture boost with sweetened eggs, coconut, assorted nuts, and dried fruits. There's also a hint of cardamom that lends this snack its unique flavour profile. The snack is usually deep-fried in coconut oil; you can also use refined oil. I've tried subtle variations across North Kerala; some versions don't feature coconut. Chef Unni Vivekanandhan also tells me how this is a versatile dish. It makes a great teatime snack and can also be served as a dessert with a dollop of ice cream. You can try his eggless recipe at home or just add the Unnakaya to your list of must-try dishes when you're in Kerala:
How To Make Unnakaya I Easy Unnakaya Recipe:
(Recipe courtesy - Chef Unni Vivekanandhan, Hyatt Regency Trivandrum)
- Ripe (Nendran) banana - 01 kg
- Grated coconut - 200 gm
- Ghee - 50 ml
- Green cardamom - 10 gm
- Raisins - 25 gm
- Cashew - 50 gm
- Rice flakes - 100 gm
- Sugar - 250 gm
- Refined oil (For frying) - 500 ml
- Boil the banana, peel off the skin and mash well. Keep aside.
- Heat ghee in frying pan and stir-fry cashew nut and raisins along with coconut and cardamom.
- Add sugar to the mix; stir well.
- Add Aval/rice flakes/flattened rice and mix well.
- Remove from the stove and allow it to cool.
- Mix cardamom powder to the mixture.
- Apply a dash of ghee on both the palms.
- Divide the mashed bananas into evenly sized small balls.
- Make a small grid in the balls and stuff the mixture.
- Seal both ends and make it cylindrical.
- Heat the oil in a pan and deep fry the bananas till they turn golden yellow.
- Serve hot. (You can add a dollop of ice cream.)
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.