Bombai Muttai: 50 years of enduring sweetness | Sunday Observer

Bombai Muttai: 50 years of enduring sweetness

22 September, 2019
The sweet delight
The sweet delight

One of the beautiful memories of our childhood was the arrival of the “bombai muttai” seller down the lane, a Moor vendor walking briskly in the sun, ringing a small brass bell that proclaimed his presence. He carried a glass box with wooden frames wherein was a small quantity of sweetness that appealed to both adults and children alike. When he opened the circular lid the delightful aroma of the sweet candy floss would permeate the air. Piled onto a thin edible wafer this small treat was a delight in every bite.

These humble men, attired in checked sarongs have almost faded into that vintage era of Colombo.

I discovered their main supplier in Colombo through my friend Naleer Haji who operates his own catering business in Colombo 12.

Abdul Hameed Street is a busy road, by day and night. I arrived here on a Saturday morning making my way past the Courts Complex. As previously agreed Naleer Haji was waiting to meet me, with his unassuming smile. The streets were crowded with youth and older men seated on stools, engaged in conversation. A policeman on a motorbike was totally focused on directing traffic along this one way street. Tamil songs belted out from the stereo of a grocery shop. After walking for a few minutes we came near a mosque, and I was ushered into a narrow lane where there were about twenty houses.

The home of the famous ‘Latheef nana’ was painted in light green with an Arabic greeting suspended on the doorway. A lady greeted me, “Please come in. Ah, you have come looking for my husband. He passed away this January after 50 years of making bombai muttai, but my son is keeping up the family tradition.

Imran, here’s a visitor for you.” Soon the old lady began to cry as the memory of her husband was overwhelming and she was comforted by her daughter. Naleer Haji smiled and slowly made his exit.

Imran shook my hand and was surprised that I had come in search of his dad, who was known to everyone in the Hulftsdorp area as the master of bombai muttai. He explained, “My late father’s name is Abdul Cader Latheef. He has told me that his father had come to Ceylon from Kerala, India. I don’t know my grandfather’s occupation. But my father as a young man of 17 years had met an old man from Kerala, working in Negombo.

This man was the guru who taught my father the art of mixing and making muttai.

When this man who spoke Malayalam moved his small business to Colombo, my father worked with him as an apprentice. My father soon displayed much culinary expertise to the surprise of his guru. As the old man was ready to retire he blessed my dad and asked him to maintain the recipe and keep up this Indian tradition. You see decades ago the Kerala vendors came to Ceylon. The word muttai means sweet in Malayalam. I’m sure this sweet dates back centuries”. Imran accompanied me to the first floor of his residence where there were large pans and trays. The aroma of caramelized sugar filled the area. His little niece and nephew had decided to follow us into the kitchen! Imran continued, “Fifty years ago my father did his work on a firewood hearth in a smaller house, sweating in the smoke. He never complained. Making this sweet was almost a sacred duty to him. He had met and married my mother 35 years ago. Today I make the muttai all by myself; the only difference is that I have gas cookers”.

Method of preparation: In a large iron wok mix a few kilograms of white flour in a few litres of super grade cooking oil, stirring it to a consistency. Gently heat it and set aside. Mix white sugar and water in another pan and place it on the fire stirring until it forms into a thick syrup. Thai white sugar is used for quality. Then cool this liquid quickly placing it over a large pot of water. The cooled sugar syrup is then spread on a tray. Next is the hardest part of the process”.

The young man continued, “Roll this sticky liquid in the shape of a necklace. I use these specially cut sticks from the kitul tree. Look at my hands, they are used to the hot temperature, as we can’t wear gloves. Pink food dye is added for visual appeal.

Thereafter, the flour mixture is added to the sugary paste- which is now in long strands. With another round of rapid stretching this paste yields thin hair like sweet strands.

This muttai can be kept for a month. We also get orders from Sri Lankans who come on holiday - they want to take back the sweets of their childhood”. The thin wafer which goes with the muttai is made separately in Muslim households in Ja-Ela and Kuliyapitiya and supplied to Colombo”.

So has the demand increased? Imran replied, “Bombai muttai is an acquired taste. It’s true there aren’t many vendors like 40 years ago. But I have about a dozen vendors who come daily to purchase. Some buy three kilos, and some five kilos. When my father was in his sick bed he implored me to continue this business as these poor vendors and their families depended on us for their income”.

Two muttai sellers had then come to his house. I noticed the old glass box had been replaced with a rectangular tin, complete with plastic lid. They said “Latheef nana was an honest man. He sustained us by supplying muttai for years. Today, the Colombo city is a busy area. We can’t walk down some roads - they are now private roads. Security guards at large condominiums chase us away. At times drug addicts try to rob the little money we earn.

We make about 2,500 rupees a day. Rainy days are bad for business. Yet we know no other trade.

We will sell our bombai muttai as long as we can walk. We have no savings’. Over the next few years these men will fade away and Imran may have to look at other ways to sell his delicious bombai muttai.