Unnakkaya are oval/ spindle shaped fritters made of medium ripe cooked plantains stuffed with a mixture made of coconut, jaggery and sometimes, beaten rice flakes as well. Given that plantain plants (Scientifically, they’re not considered trees!) in one’s backyard was the norm in Kerala, it’s not surprising that plantains whether raw or ripe, feature a lot on cooking in Kerala.
Though associated with Thalassery in particular, Unnakaya is one of the dishes more popular in the Malabar region for the breaking of the day long fast at sunset or Iftar during the holy month of Ramadan. It is also made for wedding feasts or sometimes just as an evening snack to serve with tea. Some people also call this Kaayada.
The Malabar coast of Kerala is home to a diversity of cuisines. One such distinct cuisine not very well known outside the state is that of the Kerala Muslim community or Moplahs (or Mappilas as they’re known in Kerala). Largely non-vegetarian, their food is heavily influenced by Arabic and Portuguese cuisines as a result of trade and invasions. Yet it is uniquely Indian but still different from other Indian Muslim food of the Mughlai, Awadhi or Hyderabadi cuisines.
Both my parents were born and brought up in Calicut/ Kozhikode and I often visited there as a child and lived there for a while as an adult. I however, knew very little about the predominantly non vegetarian Moplah/ Mappila cuisine because we were vegetarian. As an adult, I spent a few years working in Calicut. One of the junior staff at work was a Muslim, and she would often bring food from home for those of us at work. Knowing a few of us were vegetarian, she would on occasion bring us treats and Unnakkaya was one of them.
The name “Unnakkaya” supposedly comes from its resemblance to the silk cotton/ Kapok seed pods which are called “Unnamurika” or “Unnakka”. Authentic Unnakaya recipes use egg cooked into the filling but you will find plenty of recipes like mine without it. I haven’t made it at home very often because you can find it being sold in smaller restaurants or teas shops, especially in the Northern part of the state.
The other day I was at the corner vegetable store when my husband asked why I didn’t buy plantains. I had already taken bananas and the plantains weren’t too ripe. My husband pointed out they were just right to make Unnakkaya! The fact that Ramzan fasting is almost done was just an excuse to post it right now.
The various steps can be done separately to make the Unnakkaya making process a little easier. It’s not really very difficult to make them. The first step is cooking the plantains and mashing them to make a dough. Then the filling is made and stuffed into the plantain dough. Lastly, the shaped Unnakkaya spindles are fried till brown and crispy on the outside.
Ideally, one needs to use plantains that are just about ripe to make these fritters. If they’re too ripe, the mashed plantains will make too soft a dough and very greasy Unnakkaya. The filling is made with grated coconut and sugar usually, but I prefer to use powdered jaggery. Some people use beaten rice flakes (aval) as well in the filling but that’s a personal choice. If you don’t use beaten rice flakes, replace that in the recipe with same amount of grated coconut.
Traditional Moplah/ Mapilla recipes typically use egg in the sweet coconut filling that goes into Unnakkaya. My recipe is an egg free one. This recipe makes about 10 to 12 Unnakkaya about 4″ long.