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.
Unnakkaya –Stuffed Plantain Fritters Malabar Muslim Style
- 4 just-ripe plantains
- 1 to 2 tbsp fine rice flour if required
- 1 tbsp of ghee/clarified butter
- 1/8 cup coarsely chopped cashewnuts
- 1/8 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup beaten rice flakes optional
- 2/3 cup packed fresh grated coconut
- 1/4 cup powdered jaggery/ brown sugar
- 3 to 4 pods cardamom powdered
- Oil for deep frying
- Trim both ends off the plantains and cut each into 3 pieces. Steam cook them until they’re cooked well. Let them cool, then peel the skin off. Cut each piece lengthwise down the middle and remove the central vein with the little black seeds. Using a potato masher, mash the plantain pieces into a smooth mass. Knead with your fingers a couple of times and it should feel like smooth dough. If the dough feels a bit wet or very sticky, knead in a little of the fine rice flour (not more than 2 tbsp in all).
- While the plantain is steam cooking, prepare the filling. If using beaten rice flakes, rinse them a couple of times in water and then drain well and keep aside.
- Heat the ghee in a frying pan and add the raisins. Stir till they swell up but do not brown too much. Remove to a bowl. Add the chopped cashewnuts to the remaining ghee and toast them till golden brown. Remove and put aside with the raisins.
- In the same frying pan, add the grated coconut and toast over medium heat till golden and crisp. Mix in the jaggery or sugar. If using beaten rice flakes, add them now. Turn off the heat. Stir in the raisins, cashewnuts and powdered cardamom. You will have a dry but somewhat moist filling. You can make this a day ahead and refrigerate it in an airtight container.
- Now go back to the cooked plantain dough. Divide into 10 or 12 equal portions (about the size of largish lime). Grease your palm lightly with oil and roll each portion into a ball and flatten it out on your palm. Thin it out a little using your fingers and put about a tsp of filling in the centre. Bring the edges of the circle together to cover the filling. Smoothen the dumpling making sure there are no cracks on the surface and the filling is completely covered. Closing your palm over it to make a loose fist repeatedly, shape it into a longish spindle about 4” long.
- Repeat with remaining dough and filling. If not frying them immediately, place in an airtight container and refrigerate for upto 6 hours or overnight. They’re best fried immediately.
- Heat the oil for frying, in a wok or pot. When hot enough (not too hot or the fritters will burn), slide in the shaped dumplings into the oil, about 3 or 4 t a time depending on the size of your wok.
- Fry them till they’re uniformly brown in colour. Drain on kitchen towels. Serve warm or at room temperature with tea.