If food be your religion, the holy month of Ramadan has to be the most eventful on your calendar. Find out which cities lay out the best iftar spreads in India.
The call of the muezzin takes me back to schooldays. And for a happy reason. The prayer call from the neighbourhood mosque was indication that lunch break was only a few minutes away. About four hours later, another call of the muezzin would announce the time to go home. That too, in my little head, translated to some more food — snacky treats for the only child returning home after a long day at the convent.
More than 20 years later, nothing much has changed in my life as far as commitment to gluttony is concerned. That explains why an atheist like yours truly looks forward to religious festivals. The word ‘festive’, in the Indian lexicon, is incomplete without ‘feasting’. From ‘bhog’ cooked in temple kitchens to the rum-soaked Christmas pudding, it is an incredible smorgasbord of flavours. And the highlight in my gastronomic calendar is the holy month of Ramadan (Ramzan).
It is one of the most vibrant street parties you will find in India. The aroma of the succulent kebabs or the fried paranthas — be it in any part of the country — doesn’t taste half as good without the clattering of plates, the sizzling of the tawa, the incessant honking or the congested lanes. The feasting continues till the wee hours of the morning for a month. The Ramadan spread is partial toward the carnivore, but don’t lose heart if you’re a vegetarian. There are enough sweets and savouries to make this a memorable food experience.
Before we negotiate the alleys and bylanes for ‘fast’ food, let’s learn a few things about the two meals the believers have each day through the month. Sehri, the meal before sunrise, is usually a simple, non-spicy affair. Milk or tea is had with biscuits, cakes, butter-jam sheermal, eggs, porridge, poha, dried fruits and nuts. Fresh fruit juice and milkshakes are a contemporary addition to the menu, given the energy boost and hydration the body requires to fast till iftar. Roza is typically broken with after sunset with dates and water. This is usually followed by a platter of seasonal fruits as well as almonds, cashew, raisins, apricots and pistachios. Water gives way to colourful sherbet (milk with rose syrup being one of the most visible at iftars). What follows next is the feasting, which is the subject in the next few paragraphs.
No prizes for guessing that most of the Ramadan action is centred in Old Delhi. And you will be stumped by the quality and variety on offer outside fabled institutions like Karim’s near Jama Masjid. As you walk into the lane called Matia Mahal, bang opposite the spectacular red sandstone mosque, you will find Al Jawahar, a restaurant that serves a mean mutton ishtu (stew) and chicken Jahangiri (a sweet-and-sour chicken curry) and khameri rotis. Down the same lane is Aslam Chicken Corner, which will erase all images of an ‘orange butter chicken’ from your food memory. At Aslam’s, butter chicken is exactly what the name says — butter and chicken, laced with fresh cream. Along the way, you will find bakeries wooing the hungry with fruit cakes and puffs. For sweets, you have malpua (one big enough to feed three), jalebi and pheni (sevai). You can have these from any street stall. We recommend a glass of warm milk to accompany the jalebi and the pheni.
The lanes outside Hazratbal, the revered shrine, are much celebrated for its deadly halwa-parantha combination. Sounds fairly simple to handle? Wait till you see the gigantic, deep fried paranthas. Food coma is a reality for anyone who has laid hands on these sinful breads. Do visit the nanwais (local bakeries) that churn out sweet and savoury breads as well as cakes.
Areas within the old city are quiet and groggy through the day, only to wake up to food frenzy after dark. The feast begins at iftar and continues till sehri. Mangoes add a distinct local flavour to the standard iftar spread of dates, fruit chaat, kebab, kulcha, nihari, paya, sheermal, kulfi and phirni. Pakodas are also served as is the sinful doodh pheni. Any foodie worth his/her salt will visit the area around Akbari Gate and the Aishbagh Idgah during Ramadan.
On a Ramadan night, you may think that all insomniacs of Mumbai have congregated on Mohammed Ali Road, under the JJ Flyover. Such is the gusto among foodies that cars jostle for parking space even at 3am. Apart from the regular chicken, mutton and beef dishes — kebab, qorma, tikka and the works — meat lovers can also feast on quail meat. My fondest food memories from Mohammed Ali Road are the baida rotis (egg stuffed fried rotis), the phirnis (in kesar, mango and blackcurrant flavours), the mawa jalebis and Rimzim, a masala drink with jeera. Keep the Rimzim for the end, when your stomach is ready to burst at the seams.
The walled city becomes a melting pot of flavours and communities during Ramadan. Top of the must-try list is haleem (a delicious stew made with lentils and mutton), from the stalls near Jama Masjid. Next, make room for the keema paranthas sold near Shah-e-Alam Dargah. Bhatiara Galli in Khas Bazaar is where you go for seekh kebab and naan, silli gosht and chicken dana. Sheetal Ice Cream in Jamalpur provides the perfect dessert with its falooda and sheer khurma.
You may find Surat an unlikely entry in the list of Ramadan-special destinations. But you will thank us after a visit to Rander, an area with a large population of Muslims who have worked in Myanmar, Sudan, Malaysia and Thailand. In Rander, you get Rangooni palatas (layered keema paranthas), local takes on khow suey, silver chicken (chicken with green chilli garlic paste baked in foil), machchhi masala chicken, and burra murg (chicken stuffed with dried fruits and nuts).
Indulgence, especially of the food variety, is religion in the city of the Nizams and the Nizams are almost synonymous, just like Hyderabad and its iconic biryani. The colourful lanes around Charminar become busier in Ramadan, thanks to the thousands who march there for prayers and/or haleem. Another option for the haleem binger is Shah Ghouse, which has routed many an old favourite to occupy the top spot. The restaurant is in Tolichowki.
Last but not the least, Kolkata can stun anyone who thinks its food fabric is only about mishti doi, rosogolla, machher jhol and jhal muri. My own food Mecca in Kolkata is Aliah, a nondescript eatery on Bentinck Street. Apart from haleem, try its mutton rezala, soft rotis and melt-in-the-mouth biryani. Remember, when you order a biryani in the City of Joy, it comes with eggs and potatoes.
— With inputs from Anil Mulchandani and Neha Simlai