Whenever the family gathers at my mother’s home in Kannur, Kerala, during holidays, the grandchildren usually request a few things that only she can make. My sisters and I also add our voices to this chorus for things we don’t make ourselves. The last time we visited during Christmas, my nephew made an unusual request. “Make muttamaala,” he said, referring to the popular north Kerala dessert.
Muttamaala, meaning ‘garland of eggs’ in Malayalam, is usually served at weddings and feasts, and because of its labour-intensive preparation method,rarely made at home. Even when made for parties, the preparation is handled by professionals. This one time, my mother agreed to make it herself,but said she would need help. Being the eldest, all eyes turned to me and I found myself setting up the ingredients one December afternoon.
Muttamaala is believed to have come from the Portuguese fios de ovos or angel’s hair, which originated in Portugal in the 15th century. At the time, egg whites were used for a number of things from wine making and refining sugar to starching nun’s habits. The leftover yolks were then used to make confectioneries, and fios de ovos was one of the popular ones. The Portuguese brought their food to India and fios de ovos became muttamaala in Moplah (Malayali Muslim) cuisine. While the dish also found its way to Goa, it is not as readily available there, still made only at festivals or weddings. Various versions of fios de ovos are found in Brazil, Japan, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
The thin, golden strands of the dessert look incredibly delicate, but are surprisingly firm. The first taste is, well, a bit eggy as expected, but with a bite, an explosion of sweetness invades your palate. This is when you fall in love with it. Muttamaala has only two ingredients and is quite simple to make—if you know how.
My mother decided to use only a dozen eggs—usually muttamaala is made at least with 25. As I separated the eggs, she painstakingly pinched the membrane off each yolk and strained them through muslin.The next step was sugar syrup, a critical element in the preparation. Abida Rasheed, an expert in Moplah cuisine, explains that the consistency of the syrup is so important because “muttamaala threads are cooked in the foam of the syrup…” and it is vital to get the right consistency for the foam rises up properly.
As the syrup bubbled in a wide-mouthed steel vessel over a medium flame, I added drops of egg white to it twice to remove any impurities in the sugar, before my mother stepped in to make the muttamaala. Transferring the yolks into a fresh piece of muslin, she gathered the ends together and pinched the cloth to squeeze out the liquid in a trickle, making quick circular motions around the vessel. There are various methods to do this, including making a small hole at the bottom of an eggshell to let the yolk drizzle through. Some, like author of Classic Malabar Recipes Faiza Moosa, make a cone out jackfruit leaves and use that like a piping bag. The aim is to create thin strands of yolk. The leftover whites are mixed with the remaining sugar syrup and flavoured with cardamom or vanilla to make a flat white cake called pinnathappam. Muttamaala is traditionally served heaped over diamond-shaped pieces of pinnathappam.
Our dozen eggs yielded a plate of about 150 grams of muttamaala. We ate it for tea that day, enjoying the burst of sweetness that balanced perfectly the bitterness of the sugarless tea served in my home. “Nothing like homemade muttamaala,” my nephew exclaimed.
As I watched the children fight over the last morsels, I remembered every Eid that I had spent as a child in Saudi Arabia. Fellow Malabaris usually joined us for lunch, and everyone craved food that would remind them of their faraway home—Malabar biryani and a bowl of muttamaala. Now, going to my hometown gives me a chance to relish the dish again and every time I have it, the sweetness summons the lingering taste of my childhood.
Muttamaala requires special expertise to prepare and can spoil easily so it’s not easily found on menu cards in the region. However, select bakeries and restaurants in Kerala do have it on offer. Some of the best known places to eat a bowl of muttamaala are Zains Hotel in Kozhikode, the MRA chain of bakeries, the Alibaba and 41 Dishes chain of restaurants, and Kwality bakery in Thalassery.