My friend Kirti and I once had a long chat on G Talk. It was on the merits of Kakori House's Galauti and Kakoris (which he hadn't tasted yet) and Noor Mohammadi's shammi kebabs (which I hadn't tasted yet). The chat covered topics such as prices of the kebabs to the cost of cab fare and then invariably to Hangla versus Peking Tom (or something) at Malad (a talk all Kirti fans would have heard about), shopping for meat at Crawford Market versus in the cold storages of Bandra, cost of sweets in Sweet Bengal versus that at Calcutta. Hopefully someone will track down this chat and publish it someday the way they published the letters between Tagore and Gandhi. Or 'Hitler and Mussolini' as vegetarians would say in the context of Kirti and me. I went with Kirti and his family to Mohammad Ali Road during Ramzan but our tryst to NoorMohammadi is still pending as Kirti moved on to Bangalore. I finally got a taste of Noor Mohammadi at the Upper Crust food fair last Sunday. Then thanks to the fortuitous combination of a laptop which wasn't working, an intrepid fellow explorer and lovely weather I landed up at Noor Mohammadi.
Noor Mohammadi is part of the lost world under J J Flyover. A land you sail over as you zoom in from Byculla to the zenith of South Mumbai. For a change we drove down below the bridge that afternoon. The traffic wasn't too bad. We finally spotted Noor Mohammadi. Ironically the landmark was another restaurant, Shalimar.
We entered Noor Mohammadi and walked up the stairs to the 'partly air conditioned' part of the restaurant. It was empty barring one waiter. I felt a bit uneasy. This could have been anywhere. Antiseptic. Without character. Then my fellow explorer, Sudeshna (S), looked at me and said "Can we sit downstairs?".
'Downstairs', of course, referred to the non air conditioned, more plebeian and cheaper section in such restaurants. Many of the fairer sex would feel squeamish there. Obviously I was in good company.
We went down and took a table by a corner. A little kitten came by and snuggled down by my feet. One look around and you would be transported from a world far away from modern Mumbai. This was the world of Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim' (I have not read the book though.) The thick old walls, the high ceilings, the Urdu lettering on the wall, fellow lunch companions in Friday Namaz (prayer) caps and traditional attires, the meat dishes all around, served in humble plates, the door leading into the grimy kitchen...you could be forgiven for thinking that you were at the North Western Frontier... a couple of centuries back. A land where adventurous British soldiers and swarthy Afghans locked horns for pride and glory. The land of real men.
|Pic source: http://gwinnettbuzz.com/wp-how/Rudyard-Kipling-Kim-Text|
Well you would need a vivid imagination if you were sitting downstairs at Noor Mohammadi. Or nerves of steel. The sort that would help you overlook crumbs from the previous occupant's plate on your seat, the soot and dust around you, the kitten playing with your toes, the unwashed glasses on your table, yet to be cleared. It would be worth biting your teeth through the initial moments... for once settled down, everything cleared, you could be assured of a gastronomic ride of your life. Yes, you could get the same food 'upstairs' too. But then that would be like watching Woodstock on a DVD versus actually being there.
Our journey up the Grand Trunk road started. First with Chicken Sanju Baba, as expounded by Sunjay Dutt, the film star himself. I liked the dish when I tried it the Upper Crust Food and Wine show a week back. Liked it even more this time. Even S approvingly commented on the 'familiar' taste of the dish. The thin curry with wedges of onions, chillies and tomatoes reminded us of the Mughlai restaurants of Calcutta.
Mohammad Chacha, the avuncular manager of Noor Mohammadi, later spoke to us. He said that Sanjay Dutt used to be a thin rakish young man when he first visited Noor Mohammadi in the 80s. Mohammad Chacha took near parental pride as he remarked on how his 'Sanju Baba' was big and muscular today. The film star used to apparently visit the restaurant till recently. Now they send food to his home or to his shoots to avoid a stampede of the film star's fans in the restaurant. Mohammad Chacha then walked off. It was 4 pm. He had to return by six and then hold fort till one in the morning.
|Sunjay Dutt in his early Noor Mohammadi days in the 80s (Pic source: http://movies.ndtv.com/gallerydetails.aspx?category=movies&id=4387&picno=1§ion=bollywood)|
|Sanjay Dutt today. Many meals at Noor Mohammadi later (Pic source: http://nighi.com/2010/07/laamhaa-2010-%E2%80%93-sanjay-dutt-bipasha-basu/)|
The rotis were so soft to bite into. So calming and loving. Definitely the best naan/ tandoori rotis that I have ever had. Warmed the cockles of your heart. I finally understood what 'soul food' meant.
Then there was daal gosht. Mutton cooked in lentils. The mutton was choppy. Tender at parts. Stubborn at times. There was a film of oil/ ghee on top of the daal. Deceptive. For the daal was anything but commercialised or oil slicked. This was like a good old Bengali chholar daal. With meat in it! A harmony of complex and diverse flavours which left us asking for more. The mouth feel was extremely indulgent and yet soothing. More soul food.
The white chicken biriyani which I found out about from Sassy Fork at the Upper Crust Fair drew our attention after that. Again the sort of food which elevated cooking to the purest of fine arts. The white cream masala blended delightfully with the bashful rice....like one of those arranged marriages where people fall into love with each other over time...yes the biriyani was growing on me.
Then there was the beef shammi kebab whose name, I am sure, Kirti still lovingly calls out in his sleep. Both S and I bit into them and grinned happily like Peshawari cats. So pliant, so tender, so deep, so fragrant. Soft mashed meat with bursts of green chillies skipping through them. It tasted much better than when I had them at the Upper Crust fair.
I cracked this mystery when I stepped out. There was a man making the kebabs on the footpath outside the restaurant. So what we ate were kebabs on tap. A waiter would come and whisper the order into this humble poet of kebab's ears. He would then roll little balls of meat and put them on a flat wok. Only as many as you ordered. As Sudeshna pointed out, he added very little oil to this, unlike (in her words) tikkis at Delhi which are fried in a pan of oil.
I sat on my haunches and took photos. Camera almost resting on the surface of the wok. So close that I could feel the heat on my fingers. Any closer and they would have served me with the kebabs. Loved every moment of it.
In case you are wondering, this epic and historic meal cost us Rs 166 (3.5 USD) according to our waiter's calculator. I suspect that the two Thums Up (colas) that we ordered drove the prices up. Still the prices seemed quite 18th century to me.
The service? Well the waiter soon got used to our odd demands of individual plates, spoons. He even, on my request, got the fresh ginger and green chili salad which was meant for the night. Yes, we were well looked after.
Later we bumped into Rashid Shaikh the third generation owner of Noor Mohammadi. He and his brother have adroitly navigated the restaurant, which their grandfather opened in 1923, to 2010. Apparently they courier kebabs from Noor Mohammadi across the country now. They have not opened any franchises. The personal love and involvement of the owners, the manager, the waiters, the cleaners, the cooks and the kebabwalla evident in each bite.
Rashid told me about his 'chicken hathela' (if I have got the name right). A different or 'hathela' take on tandoori chicken.
As if I needed a reason to come back.
|The lost world below J J Flyover|
|I would recommend the 'partly non air conditioned' part to get the true flavour of the place|
|Can you see Kim anywhere?|
|Friday prayers rewarded by a good meal|
|hot line to the freshest kebabs in the world|
|A Bengali babu in the thick of action in the land of the brave|
|Come to think of it, how did our bill come to 166 Rs?|
|Behind this door great food was being created|
|Munna Bhai, Sanju Baba, can I give you a 'jadoo ke jhappi' for this?|
|Chicken Sanju Babu|
|Soft, hot rotis...that peaceful easy feeling|
|Daal gosht...the oil slick was deceptive...this was soul food|
|I never liked daal gosht before. After this it is now one of my favourite dishes|
|white chicken biriyani...'come fall in love' as they say in the movies|
|Ginger and chilli salad after many entreaties...the waiter got the lemon wedges once he saw my camera|
|The making of Noor Mohammad'i's beef shammi kebabs...this set of photos are for Kirti|
|Any closer and they would have served me with the kebabs|
|'Look Mom no oil '. Relatively speaking.|
|Our waiter for the day|
|A strange 'pet' for the Temple of Meat|
|Mohammad Chacha, the manager. Photos of the founder and his son behind him|
|Rashid Shaikh...generation 3|
|Sudeshna, my intrepid fellow explorer|
|Koffee with Kim|