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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Steamy business: An African spirit in Fort Kochi saves the puttu from crumbling

The technique of steaming rice flour shapes (idlis, puttu) arrived on India’s coastlines from East Asia, especially China, and was adapted to India’s non-sticky rice flours. As per local beliefs, puttu is offered to African slaves' spirits in Fort Kochi somewhat like a 'prasad'.

Written by Ari Gautier , Ananya Jahanara Kabir | Manchester, Oslo |
Updated: March 27, 2021 11:34:56 pm
kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian ExpressPuttu and Kadala curry (Photo- Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay/ edited by Gargi Singh)

When the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama disembarked near Calicut in 1498, he inaugurated a new phase in history. The sea routes were opened up, and the Dutch, French, Danes, and British soon followed. The coastal enclaves which they founded became hubs of cultural exchange. Their economic potential attracted many kinds of people, including merchant communities, from outside and within India. ‘Creolisation’ resulted. New, unexpected cultural products sprang up from this interaction between different languages, different gods, different ways of living, and, of course, different ways of cooking and preparing food.

What was cooking in creole India’s kucinis?

Kucini Tales is a five-part flash fiction series, based on research on creolised food histories of India: the results of cultural encounters within settlements on the Malabar, Konkan, and Coromandel coasts and Bengal’s Hooghly district, founded and fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Danish, and British. Communities remember memorable events through scenarios that repeat as dramatic stories or myths. Our kucini tales are mini-scenarios, that entertain you with food stories from Creole India.

The first story was about vinegar as a generator of creole connections. It introduced Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar and Vattalakundu Rani. The second tale presented Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau and Bibi Juliana Firangi competing for the best creole dishes. In this third story, Sangli Kalpou, Tamil diasporic deity, and his beloved Mohini accidentally befriend Kappiri Muthappan, the leader of African spirits walled up in Fort Kochi, and Kadal Kanni, mermaid of many oceans. Their encounter shows how cooking techniques not only arrived from the Eastern Indian Ocean to Kerala but also were incorporated into local rites of atonement for forgotten stories of African presence here.

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Creolisation is about mixing up words, ingredients and techniques, so we invite you to savour new words you might encounter as you read, play guessing games with them, and find connections with words you know (‘Kucini’ is the Pondicherry Tamil word for ‘kitchen’, which comes from Portuguese ‘cozinha’ or ‘kitchen’).

At the end of each story, you will find: a glossary, an ‘axiom’ of creolisation, and a summary of the underlying historical and cultural facts.

Chal, chal?… (where are you?) the kolosu’s question echoed across the lagoon.
Kling kling. Klang klangan … (Not far. On the opposite bank), responded the chains.
Chalo, chal? (let’s meet?)
Kling Klung (Yes, I’m coming) …
Happy to have found her lover, Mohini joyfully headed to their meeting place. The night was peaceful. She could hear the gentle lapping of water around Sangli Kalpou’s boat.
By the light of the full moon, she took the narrow path that skirted Lake Vembanad. The smell of suruttu wafted across her face. Was he already there? Wanting to surprise him, she walked lightly, trying not to make too much noise with her kolusus. She caught sight of him. Lost in thought, leaning against the wall of the Dutch cemetery, his chains dangling, smoking his suruttu. She hid behind the Neem tree to watch him.

‘Ahaan, Monsieur’s put on such nice clothes today!’ She thought, noting his silhouette. ‘So chic he looks! Suits him well. I was really getting fed up of those long robes!’ Smiling to herself, she got ready to come out of her hiding place.

Sangli Kalpou moored his boat and stretched. He hoisted his chains upon his shoulders and was about to join his beloved. But he suddenly stopped at the sight of the Chinese nets and remembered that he had promised Mohini a fish vindaye, Reunion Island style. He chuckled at the memory of their first meeting over vinegar. So now it was time to fish… He lit a suruttu and waited. Great was his surprise when the net rose to the surface. A woman was struggling in it! And what’s more: with a body ending in a tail! A Kadal Kanni! Her helpless writhing snapped Sangli Kalpou into action. He rushed to free her.

‘Let me go!’ She said vehemently. ‘You don’t know who I am!’

‘But I don’t mean any harm, my beautiful lady. I just want to help you.’ Sangli Kalpou was sincerely concerned. Kadal Kanni seemed reassured by his conciliatory tone. Despite his stocky appearance, the man exuded a certain nobility.

‘Since you are here, please be kind enough to carry me to the Dutch cemetery.’

‘The cemetery? How amazing, that’s exactly where I’m headed, too. What a coincidence. Are you going to meet someone there?’

‘My lover.’ Kadal Kanni said mischievously.

Sangli Kalpou filled a large deksa with water, lowered her in it, and placed it on his head. A mysterious smile spread over his face.

Back in the cemetery, Mohini heard the man she thought was her lover address someone up the very Neem tree she was hiding behind. ‘Hey! Get down here, will you? And pass me the arrack! Enough of this nonsense!’

Mohini was shocked. Who was this person with this strange accent? He looked liked Sangli Kalpou, had the same chains and cigar, but spoke so differently! And who was he speaking to? Overcome by curiosity, Mohini emerged from her hiding place and approached the wall.

Vexed by the lack of response, the man grabbed a brick and threw it up into the tree. A Vedalam tumbled down and landed at the feet of a terrified Mohini.

‘But who are you? You… You are not Sangli Kalpou!’

‘No, I’m Kappiri Muthappan.’ Said the man calmly.

‘I’ve wanted to meet you for the longest time!’ Sangli Kalpou lit a suruttu and handed it to Kappiri Muthappan.

‘Me too! Vedalam talks to me about you often.’

‘Where is he anyway?’

‘He shot back up the tree. He’s sulking tonight.’ Kappiri Muthappan winked. After getting acquainted, the two couples had settled down in the cemetery, chatting happily.

‘Have you known each other long?’ Kadal Kanni asked Mohini.

‘Oh, for lifetimes! We met a long time ago under a Tamarind tree in Pondicherry… fighting over different kinds of vinegar… we met again at the Koravakuppam Kreyol Festival, fighting over the best baffad and salmi… that’s us! Separating, meeting up, following our hearts and creole trails.’
‘But isn’t your name actually Sanguili Karuppan?’

‘Yes, but that was before I crossed the Kala Pani. Since I relocated to Reunion, my name has become Sangli Kalpou. And this time, I promised Mohini I would cook her something special from that island.
‘Fantastic! Kadal Kanni and I love creole cuisine. And she’s going to cook my favourite dish tonight. Puttu!’
‘What’s that? Never heard of it!’

kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian Express Puttu (Photo- Chez Pushpa)

‘It’s a speciality with red rice flour that uses an interesting technique called steaming.’ Said Kappiri Muthappan, hitching up his trousers to sit down, and rearranging his chains. ‘Kadal Kanni picked it up in her travels across the Eastern Indian Ocean. She’ll tell you all about it.’

Sangli Kalpou bustled around. ‘So let’s get to work then! I’m going to make fish vindaye in the style of Reunion and Mohini has learned some new-fangled stew from up the coast in Goa that she calls kaald. Let’s see how it goes with Kadal Kanni’s puttu!’

‘So while you guys cook, let me entertain you with my story’, suggested Kappiri Muthappan. ‘I was captured on March 24, 1498, off the coast of Mozambique. When I was thrown into the ship’s hold, I found in there about thirty men already captured on the Senegalese coast. And we reached Calicut on May 20 of the same year. From that date until the 18th century, there were thousands of Africans who were captured and sent here to work in different sectors. Soldiers, guards, builders– we even built these Chinese nets! We constructed Fort Manuel here in Kochi. We lived in abundance and peace for centuries, until the day the Dutch, leaving Batavia, started coveting this place. Once they set foot in the kingdom of Kochi, Portuguese supremacy was severely challenged. The Dutch began to attack as early as 1658, and the Portuguese forces resisted fiercely for several years. But finally, in 1663, on January 7, to be precise, after years of fighting, Governor Ignatio Sermento surrendered the keys to the Fort to Ryckloff Van Goens.
Having seized power, the Dutch demanded that the Portuguese and the Indo-Portuguese mestiços leave the Fort immediately taking nothing with them. Without much choice, they piled up all their wealth and possessions accumulated over centuries and walled it all up, along with their slaves! Yes, we were walled up alive to take care of the treasure in perpetuity! Since then, we have become its guardian spirits. And I, Kappiri Muthappan, am their leader! Of course, under cover of night, we emerge occasionally to stretch our legs…’

kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian Express African slaves onboard a ship. (Photo- Wikimedia Commons)

Mohini was quite overcome by this tale.

‘And the Kadal Kanni, then?’

‘She goes by many names, depending on the waters she finds herself in. Off the West African coast, she is ‘Queen of the waters’ or ‘Ezebelamiri’; when Pidgin developed to communicate with the Europeans, they called her Mami Wata (‘mother of the waters’)! In Haiti, they call her ‘Lasirene’, which is their Kreyol way of saying ‘the siren’. In the South China Sea, she is 鲛人 (Jiāorén). We were head over heels in love until Vasco da Gama’s fleet captured me. She was devastated when she learned of my misfortune. Unable to save me, she transformed into a mermaid to follow me. And since then, she has lived in the oceans.’

‘What a story, old man! Here, have a drink!’ Sangli Kalpou and Kappiri Muthappan clinked together their glasses of arrack. ‘Is that how she’s picked up this puttu?’

‘Wait a moment, she will explain it to you,’ answered Kappiri Muthappan. ‘Crossing back and forth across the oceans, she’s learned a lot. Her theories of steam cooking are really very impressive.’


‘Well, friends— “puttu” is the name given to this dish that has evolved in the islands of the South China Sea. In Melaka and Java they call it “putu”, in the Tagalog language of the Philippines, they call it “puto”… it’s quite an ingenious way of preparing rice. You take rice flour, stuff it into a hollowed-out bamboo cylinder, demarcate the portions with grated coconut, attach the bamboo to a vessel of boiling water, and steam it.’

kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian Express Preparation of puttu (Photo- Yasmin Mahmood)

‘So what is this “steaming” and what’s the point of the bamboo tube?’ Mohini was intrigued. ‘Why not just boil the rice directly in the water?’

‘Ah, Mohini! This is human ingenuity. Why not? It’s boring to eat rice the same way all the time. The bamboo tube gives the rice flour a nice shape and delicate flavour. And it’s such a gift of nature, just lying there to be used! The vapours seal in the flavour and create this interesting texture combining the rice flour and the coconut layers. A totally different feeling to rice.’

‘Look, Mohini, this is something for us to learn!’ declared Sangli Kalpou. ‘I have heard from the Chinese in Mauritius and Reunion how they steam everything! They put meat and fish and that excellent condiment, soy sauce—in little flour parcels and steam that too.’

‘Yes,’—butted in Kappiri Muthappan. ‘My Dutch Burgher friends over in Sri Lanka have adapted that technique too—very good for travelling long distances— they put rice and different curries in banana leaf parcels and steam it up— “lamprais” they call it.’

‘But doesn’t it all fall apart and get messy?’ Mohini had a strongly practical streak in her.

‘That’s why you need the rice flour!’ said Kadal Kanni triumphantly. ‘Steaming goes really well with the sticky rice they love out there in east Asia. The flour just comes together in a nice chewy, sticky mass with bits of savoury deliciousness suspended in it.’

She emptied carefully the steamed puttu on to a vasi for the little impromptu dinner party. Mohini, ever-sceptical, picked one up with her fingers.

‘Hmmm… sorry Kadal Kanni, but this is not really sticky. It’s kind of crumbly!’

Kappiri Muthappan stepped in. He knew this was a sensitive area for Kadal Kanni.

‘Actually, you have a point… erm you see, we don’t produce much sticky rice in the Indic world. We prefer our grains to be long and fluffy. So our rice flour, alas, doesn’t behave quite like it does further east.’
Sensing trouble bubbling up, Sangli Kalpou took up the baton of diplomacy. ‘It is a bit crumbly for sure, but look!’ He dipped his puttu in the plate of kaald that Mohini has served up. Its semi-crumbling texture soaked up the rich yet light coconut gravy. ‘This goes absolutely brilliantly with your kaald. That glutinous stuff could never absorb the juices of a good curry. By the way Mohini, this kaald is delicious. What is it?’
‘Oh just some bits and pieces I bunged together in that vaanal there… some beef that I picked up from Mattancherry, some coconut milk…’ Mohini blushed with pleasure. ‘There’s only so much you can improvise in a cemetery— I just wanted to show you what was cooking on the Malabar coast while you were away in the Western Indian Ocean. People are calling it kaald, but its quite different from the Portuguese caldo.

kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian Express Beef and coconut stew (kaald) (Photo-Nisa Homey)

‘Ah, what’s in a name! My vindaye from Reunion is every bit as delicious as Goan vindalho and Pondicherry vindaille– isn’t it, darling?’ Sangli Kalpou asked in turn.

‘Happy to say you haven’t lost your magic touch, sweetheart… though I’m sure it’s my cù vinegar from Shanxi that you stole all those years ago which continues to elevate your recipe.’

‘Stole…?’ retorted Sangli Kalpou, teasing her. ‘I recall a certain Rani who absconded with my Portuguese vinaigre in its vial of Murano glass….’

Replete with food and drink, the lovers had separated into twosomes.

It was Saturday morning in the Anglo-Indian quarter of Thoppumpady. NDTV was blaring; the D’Rozario household was bustling. Sheryl’s fiancé was about to arrive with his family for formal talks. The kitchen was fragrant with the scents of traditional breakfast being prepared: kaald and puttu. But Sheryl was distraught. That puttu just wasn’t coming together. No matter how hard she tried with the techniques, it was crumbling like a sand castle. Her grandmother who was preparing the kaald came to her aid.
‘Listen girl, take the puttu cylinder and go to Mangattamukku. Take the bus, it will only take you five minutes to reach Fort Kochi. Pray to Kappiri Muthappan for the puttu’s success. He needs to be given the first portion to save the rest from crumbling. And oh yes! Take some of my kaald too. Kapiri Muthappan adores puttu with kaald. He may be an African in European dress, but he likes his local food. And he deserves it, too, walled up like that for so many centuries, guarding our treasure, our secrets, and the stories we walled up with him.’

When Sheryl got up, she saw something shining inside the small shrine. A Murano glass vial. She turned her head and saw her fiancé Lawrence at the foot of the Tamarind tree.

Third axiom of creolization

Slaves, gods, mermaids, food— all creolise across the seas
Through transformations, what is forgotten can be appeased

Historical note

Why is puttu, a dish iconic of Kerala cuisine, offered by locals to the Fort Kochi deity known as ‘Kappiri Muthappan’— a Black African who is believed to walk around cemeteries clad in a suit, hat, and chains, smoking a cigar? The Kappiri Muthappans are the spirits of Africans who were brought here by the Portuguese as slaves. When Fort Kochi fell to the Dutch in the 17th century, the Portuguese fled, but walled up their treasure and their slaves. Researchers such as Neelima Jeyachandran and Edward Edezhath explain this strange story as cultural memory of a large African presence in Kochi that was since erased. But why is puttu linked to this violent, forgotten history? This kucini tale provides an answer by revealing puttu’s creolised origins.

This ‘authentic’ Kerala dish is a product of the same creolising maritime culture as the Kappiri Muthappan. While Kappiri Muthappan emerges from the Western Indian Ocean linking East Africa and the Malabar Coast, puttu comes to the Malabar Coast from the Eastern Indian Ocean. ‘Puttu’ means ‘portion’ in Malayalam (a similar dish with a similar name exists in Tamil kucinis). It is the name for rice flour and coconut cakes steamed originally in bamboo tubes and now in stainless steel cylinders. In the Philippines, steamed rice cakes, sweet and savoury, are called ‘puto’, that in Tagalog also means ‘portion’, including ‘puto bumbong’, steamed in bamboo. Indonesian ‘kue puto’ are rice flour cakes steamed in bamboo. Which is the ‘original’?

kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian Express Filipino puto (Photo-Kitchen confidante)

Creolization theories are less interested in origins, and more interested in the routes through which culture moves and transforms. It is established that: a) ancient India did not use steaming as a cooking technique; b) steaming as a technique was refined in East Asia, specially China, and associated with eastern and south-eastern Asian cultures of sticky rice cultivation; c) South Asia has always preferred rice varieties that are fluffy, not sticky. Cultural interchange between East, South-East, and South Asia via ancient maritime routes did not break down this fundamental divide between the rice eaters of Asia. But the technique of steaming rice flour shapes (idlis, puttu) did arrive on India’s coastlines and was adapted to India’s non-sticky rice flours. European use of those trade connections intensified the circulation of steamed items such as puttu around the Indian Ocean world.

kucini tales, food history, food, Indian food, puttu, Kerala food, Africans in Kerala, idli, how to make puttu, food stories, Indian Express Indonesian Putu kue or putu bambu (Photo- Endy Daniel)

This creolised dish is offered to Kappiri Muthappan somewhat like ‘prasad’. It is a community’s disguised memory of a vibrant creolised past, created through the presence of many different kinds of people in Fort Kochi. The walling up of Kappiri Muthappan symbolically acknowledges that we often ‘wall up’ facts because of fears of impurity. Different communities bring different ‘prasad’ to Kappiri Muthappan, depending on whether he assumes European garb or the long robes of the Swahili coastline. The ‘Anglo-Indians’ of Kochi, who are actually descended from the Portuguese, bring Kappiri Muthuppan puttu along with kaald (a creolised dish like the baffad and kousid of Kucini Tale 2). If Kappiri Muthappan doesn’t get the first portion of puttu, it will crumble. A creole spirit needs to be appeased through creole food to keep history and identity porous, but not falling apart.

Sangli Kalpou and Kadal Kanni are other creations of a creolised maritime imagination that make India’s coastlines porous to the cultures of wider oceanic worlds.

We are grateful to Yasmin Mahmood and Dr Edward Edezhath for providing invaluable information about puttu, kaald, Fort Kochi and Mattanchery.


Kolosu: Tamil, anklets
Suruttu: Tamil, cigar
Sangli Kalpou: the diasporic transformation of Tamil village deity Sanguili Karuppu
Kadal kanni: Tamil, mermaid (‘virgin of the oceans’)
Deksa: Tamil, large cooking vessel
Kappiri Muthappan: Malayalam, ‘African grandfather’; African spirits of Fort Kochi’s walls; Malayalam ‘Kappiri’ (African person) is from Arab ‘kafir’ which is an old term for ‘Black African’ circulating in the Western Indian Ocean; it also appears in Goa’s ‘chicken cafreal’. ‘Muthappan’ is also a term used for various principal deities in the Malayalam-speaking world.
Vedalam: Tamil, revenant or evil spirit; from Sanskrit ‘vetala’
Kala pani: Hindi, ‘black waters’, the name for a prosbcribed ocean crossing
Mestiço: Portuguese, mixed-race person
Vasi: Tamil, ‘plate; from Portuguese, ‘water container’
Vaanal: Tamil, frying pan
Kaald: Kochi creole, stew; from Portuguese caldo, ‘soup’

Further reading

Dorian Fuller and Cristina Castillo, “Diversification and Cultural Construction of a Crop: The Case of Glutinous Rice and Waxy Cereals in the Food Cultures of Eastern Asia.” In J Lee-Thorp and M. Katzenberg, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Diet (OUP, 2015).

Dorian Fuller and Mike Rowlands. “Ingestion and food technologies: maintaining differences over the long-term in West, South and East Asia.” In Interweaving Worlds-systematic interactions in Eurasia, 7th to 1st millennia BC (Oxbow Books, 2011).

Edward A. Edezhath, ‘Kappiri Myth: A Living Remnant of Luso-Dutch Encounter in Cochin’,

Haritha John, ‘African Slaves and Spirit of Kappiri Muthappan’

Maddy, ‘The Kappiri Slaves of Cochin’

Neelima Jeyachandran, ‘Kappiri Shrines and Memory of Slavery in Kerala


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