The Grinch’s Guide to Ramzan

A nihari-lover’s ode to a month that once had more soul than sensation.  
Humaira's Column
Photo by: Hindustan Times/Contributor/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

“Wow! You must be bingeing till sunrise, no? Kebabs, keema, chops and all?”

“Oh yes! Totally,” would be my rehearsed response to my curious carnivorous Catholic friends in the college foyer. “You see… come Ramzan and Allah blesses us with three stomachs, two aortas and Padma Lakshmi’s metabolism.”

“What ya man, Humaira,” they’d laugh awkwardly and then, cut to the chase, to pop the question— “So when are you taking us to Minara?”

For the uninitiated, the eponymous 500-metre stretch leading to the pistachio green-domed Minara Masjid, is where much of Bombay convenes to indulge in an artery-choking food orgy every Ramzan. Starting late evening, the revelry continues until the wee hours of the morning. Expats and tourists come to exoticise Mozlim food in a Mozlim ghetto. Nikon-garlanded food bloggers congregate to expand their portfolios and midriffs. Foodie friends and pile-ons drag that one Muslim friend here to devour platefuls of fiery bheja masala, greasy keema baida roti and steaming quail tandoori. The live bird is grilled fresh after it is retrieved from cages festooned outside stalls where surma-eyed men compete for your attention and what’s in your wallet.

Year-on-year, when elbowing through crowds for Zam Zam’s tawa mutton pulao and Suleman Usman Mithaiwala’s phirni became impossible, I started taking colleagues to the less-hyped Bohri Mohalla. Settled by the food-loving Dawoodi Bohra community, a 20-minute walk from Minara Masjid, gluttony here came minus the grind. Shorter queues, great variety,well-priced menus. In taste, the treats were on par with Minara… Haji Tikka’s heavenly gurda-kaleji, Tawakkal’s rabdi-slathered malpua and Taj Ice Cream’s creamy, hand-churned seasonal flavours. Sitaphal in winter. Mango in May.

Sadly, and more recently, Bohri Mohalla, too, has transformed into a mini-Minara, thanks to the astronomical interest in Bohra cuisine fuelled by a slew of well-marketed food start-ups. So much so that it is now an ‘alternative location’ for overprized Ramzan food walks.

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Sure, during Ramzan, Minara Masjid is to Bombay what Chandni Chowk is to Delhi or Zakaria Street to Calcutta. But Bombay has Bollywood. So when stars such as Katrina Kaif descend, buffed bodyguards in tow, the frenzied WhatsApp updates make you want to reach for popcorn. Growing up in Mohammed Ali Road though, this isn’t how I remember the two neighbourhoods. Much before this brazen commercialisation crept in, the two localities embodied a spirit of Ramzan that was simpler and soulful.

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It was an unspoken pact between me and my father. As a little girl, I’d wait for him to get back from office, a tad earlier than usual, so we could go iftar shopping to Bohri Mohalla and be back home in time to break bread to the muezzin’s call.

To give business to the dozens of skull-capped vendors peddling the same set of fresh fruits, we’d buy bulky melons and papayas from one fellow and bananas and translucent green grapes from another. On either side, the main street used to be flanked by carts that popped up only during Ramzan. Blissful bowls of dahi vada and chana batata; packets of pink-and-yellow falooda mix; greenish-black patrelia, a cocoyam leaves and mutton snack—it was a sensory explosion. My favourite of the delectable fare on display here was the naan sandwich, a mashed mutton-potato mixture stuffed between two palm-sized naans.

Intoxicating aromas,medley of sounds and flavours… the bonhomie of Bohri Mohalla is what I associated Ramzan there with.

Minara Masjid, on the other hand, was a diva even then. But back in the day you didn’t feel like a sardine in a pack, navigating in and out of fairy-lit, qawwali-blaring alleyways. Local residents, too, went there to partake in the celebrations, especially on chaand raat, the night when the sighting of the elusive crescent moon heralds Eid.

One Ramzan evening my family decided to dine at the newly opened Chinese N Grill, a restaurant that had calculatedly invested in ticker ads on the local cable TV network. Going by the restaurant’s name, sizzlers seemed safe. I still remember how the smoke and tripping chicken strips on the hotplate set me off on a sneezing spree. It was the next thing we ordered that changed my life. It was that Ramzan evening when, as a 12-year-old, I fell in love with nalli nihari. So much so that I wanted to roll, rise, and roll again in the slow-cooked beef stew (luckily nobody had a beef with beef then).

This must be early 2000s. Today, a meal at Chinese N Grill is preceded by an average wait time of at least an hour. In Ramzan, catch two.

To avoid the circus, I now take friends to inconspicuous haunts where it’s possible to binge without wading through a sea of sweaty diners. Best? I ring up Chinese N Grill, order nihari and call friends over. Between the marrow and meat, I love how every morsel rekindles childhood memories of a Ramzan that was more substance and less pretence.

  • Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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