Zaitoon Younoos, a Memon female chef and entrepreneur, has opened Chai & Bites, a cafe in Colombo serving home-cooked Memon dishes in an attempt to halt the erasure of a cuisine that is part of her family heritage.
By Rida Bilgrami
A decade since the end of a brutal 26-year long civil conflict, Sri Lanka is writing a new chapter in its history–one where its cuisine is increasingly taking center-stage. The country’s history of colonial rule and ethnic and religious heterogeneity are reflected in its vibrant culinary offerings. While Sri Lanka is renowned for its hoppers, kottu roti, and fiery crab curries washed down with arack–the local spirit distilled from coconut–there is much more to be explored on this island. For instance akni, an aromatic beef, potato and rice dish with notes of cumin and cloves–the pièce de résistance of a Memon meal–cooked at home by one of Sri Lanka’s Muslim communities.
Nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Muslim, and within the Muslim community there are several ethnic denominations. Amongst these, Memons are prominent due to their dominance in the garment export sector, a mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy. Memon merchants migrated to Sri Lanka from various parts of the state of Gujarat, India for trade purposes beginning in the late 1800s, and in larger numbers in the late 1940s during colonial independence. The Memon community in Sri Lanka is estimated to be around10000 people, of which approximately 9,000 live in Colombo.
While the imprint of Memons in Sri Lanka’s industrial growth is well documented, their cuisine has little exposure outside their tightly knit community. As the generation of women who migrated from Gujarat to Sri Lanka predominantly in the late 1940s is fading out, so are their recipes, which are mainly passed down through oral tradition. Zaitoon Younoos, a Memon female chef and entrepreneur, has recently opened Chai & Bites, a cafe in Colombo serving home-cooked Memon dishes in an attempt to halt the erasure of a cuisine that is part of her family heritage.
Younoos’s family hails from Kutiyana, Gujarat. Her family migrated to Sri Lanka in 1947 when British rule ended in India and Muslim communities were forced to leave due to persecution. She learned Memon cooking from her mother Zubeida. I sat down with Younoos and her son Asim to learn about the origins and characteristics of Memon cuisine.
“Beef is the main protein in our curries and is an integral part of a Memon meal. We even serve curried calf brains and marrow for breakfast on the weekends,” she says. “Since Gujarat is quite arid, lentils and vegetables that need less water to grow were commonly eaten and pickling became an important part of Memon cuisine as it enabled us to preserve vegetables for longer.”
Gaajar jo aathnu, for example, is a carrot pickle that serves as an accompaniment to akni.
A typical Memon meal begins with a plate of deep fried food such as samosas with a spicy mince beef filling. A main dish follows, which is usually beef curry cooked with tomatoes and onions, or a vegetarian dish like lehsun, a blend of garlic scrapes with crushed millet that is pounded together with strips of millet flatbread. Malpura, a pancake made with eggs, semolina, cardamom, and flour, and served with a drizzle of cream, is a staple for dessert.
“Often you see immigrant communities adopt ingredients and cooking techniques from their new surroundings. This has not been the case with our cuisine, which has remained quite insular,” Asim says.
One Memon specialty that does use coconut milk is khaosay, a chicken curry served with noodles that finds its origins in Myanmar and Northern Thailand. I wondered how a Southeast Asian dish entered the Sri Lankan Memon kitchen.
“We are aware that traders from our community prospered in Myanmar in the early 1900s, trading in rice and tea. Perhaps there were inter-marriages that led to Memons learning this dish,” Younoos says. In her own khaosay she uses beef instead of chicken, and substitute coconut milk with curd.
According to Younoos, until Chai & Bites opened, Memon food could not be found outside homes.
“It is incredibly important for me that our cuisine is enjoyed and appreciated by a broader segment of society and it transitions from the home dining table to a restaurant setting,” she says, full of passion. Asim envisions the cafe to eventually become a platform for other Memon home chefs to develop a market for their cooking, and as a place to acquaint other Sri Lankans with their cuisine. Now that Memon food has made an appearance outside the home, there is no turning back.
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