Article

Kumbilappam: The forgotten Onam dish

Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru) on one of the now hard-to-find treats of Onam – how does it define the soul of one of India’s oldest harvest festival

By Madhulika Dash

Recipe and dish picture courtesy Chef Vinoth Kumar J (Chef De Cuisine, Conrad Bengaluru) “Think Onam and the first thing that comes to mind is Sadya – the iconic feast of 28 delicious dishes that pay tribute to not only the ancient food culture of Kerala but also to the produce. It is an experience that can aid you to time travel and appreciate the finer things that made the pepper state one of the most prosperous part of the erstwhile Pandya Kingdom - an era when anthropologist suggest that Onam, till then a farmer’s celebration, turned into a state festival replete with elephant fights, boat rides, cultural program, drum competitions and the works – and the power hub of the erstwhile SpiceRoute. After all, it was from this little place that the finest global currency, pepper, was grown and imported. Of course, it was here that papers that allowed traders entry into India and trade was also made.

But Onam, at least in all its years of existence (roughly estimated around 1,500 years if Madurai Kanchi is to be believed) wasn’t always this all-state celebration with each day dedicated to praising a part of the life that nature so willingly provided for – for a generous slice of Onam’s history, it remained a harvest festival that would have the farmers across the belt bask in the glory of yet another year of good produce and thank the lord for the same. The food made on the day of the main puja (which is today) was slightly lavish with the focus on celebrating rice. In fact, a lot of the food that was exchanged between neighbours, co-farmers and relatives was about rejoicing in the plenty-ness of food that the yearlong labour had produce. This was the reason that many of the dishes that were made during the time had the freshest of produce – some expensive as well – and rice. 

One such example is Kumbilappam. A tribute to the season’s finest produce - the new paddy, jackfruit and 'vazhznayila' (Malabar Cinnamon)– Kumbilappam gets its name from the use of 'kumbil' (cone) in which a mound of jackfruit and jaggery sweetened mound of rice is steamed. Made of a special leaf called 'vazhznayila', this sweet snack that is offered as a delicious greeting to all is made with rice flour made by soaking freshly dehusked rice, which is soaked, dried and then powdered. This powder is then flavoured with banana (or jack fruit) coconut and jaggery and then stuffed into the cone before being steamed into this gooey, stick treat. The beauty of this dish isn’t just that amazing toffee-like texture with that distinct caramel velvetiness that stays on your palate long after you have finished the treat but also the fragrance of the Malabar Cinnamon that instantly transports into Kerala’s many spice garden. 

No wonder the dish was amongst the few that travelled to the Muziris during Onam with the Malabar Cinnamon and Bayleaf (tej patta) that were equally in demand for theirfragrance in Rome and Egypt. In fact, I too had my first Kumbilappam when it travelled in parts from Kerala to our hotel as part of the Onam festival. And eventually became a part of our signature offering during the time. Of course, given to the availability of the leaf. 

Kumbilappam remained one of the finest offerings though it was limited to homes and villages where it was a part of the Ona Kodi where the landlord (zamindar) would gift their tenants with new clothes and Kumbilappam as part of the Onam ritual. Today, Kumbilappam is a rare find – at least the one prepared traditionally. The reason, the skill and the availability of the right kind of ingredients. But when it comes to the essence of Onam, nothing quite encapsulates the gifts of nature like this wrapped  delicacy – it  celebrates everything new in nature, including rice. “

KUMBILAPPAM

INGREDIENTS

1. Rice Flour - 110 Gm

2. Jaggery - 40 Gm

3. Mashed Jackfruit - 30 Gm

4. Grated Fresh Coconut -30 Gm

5. Cardamom Powder - 1 Tsp

6. Ghee - 1 Tsp

7. Fresh Bay Leaves - Needed for cone

8. Water -3 Tbsp

METHOD

1. Mix Jaggery and water in a saucepan and melt the Jaggery.

2. Take the measured rice flour in a mixing bowl. Add coconut, cardamom powder and mashed Jack fruit to it.

3. Pour melted Jaggery syrup through a strainer to get rid of any impurities.

4. Mix well to make a dough.

5. Add a teaspoon of ghee to the dough and combine.

6. Take a clean bay leaf and shape it into a cone. Secure it with a stick or toothpick.

7. Fill the leaf cone with the prepared dough. Repeat the process.

8. Add a bay leaf in the steaming water.

9. Steam the cone in steamer for 10-15 minutes on a high flame.

10. When they are done, remove from the heat and serve warm.