The Mecca of Meat… Ramzan eats of Mumbai’s Bohri Mohalla… India Hotel, Bar – b – que, Imam Sharbatwala, Valibhai Payawallah, Tawakkal Sweets
Caveat: A very looooong post. I made two attempts at writing the post before. Didn’t like them. Wrote this afresh.
I read about Mumbai’s Ramzan eats when I first moved in here more than a decade back. Possibly in the Times of India or in the Mid Day. The article mentioned two areas at Mohammed Ali Road in this context. The Minara Masjid Area and Bohri Mohalla and its Bara Handis. There was no J J Flyover then.
I headed to Mohammed Ali Road with friends at work that after reading the article. Found the carnival like Minara Masjid lane pretty easily. Took in a bite of Mumbai surrounded by festive revelry, bright lights and rows of skewered meat waiting to be eaten. Mohammed Ali Road held me in its spell. I returned often since to Minara Masjid at Ramzan. Each time with a new set of friends, an expanding girth and a receding hairline.
Truth be told I was a bit jaded with Mohammed Ali Road in Ramzan in my 12th year here. The last time I went was with Kirti and co. We loved the atmosphere but found the food patchy. A bit like pandal hopping at Calcutta during the pujas. So, by the time the social media made it fashionable to head to Mohammed Ali Road, I was sort of done with it. Politely refusing requests on twitter to join folks and go to Mohammed Ali Road.
The Food commandos
And then I got a text from Shanky of the blog lotsafood. And plans were made. A sortie to Mohammed Ali Road was planned. Texts flew across Mumbai that night. Logistics discussed. Chronometers synchronised. Well not really. More like work schedules adjusted. Equipment taken out, cleaned, ammunition checked. Camera batteries if you really want to know.
At the risk of being unpopular I must admit that I was putting a crack team together. I asked for complete radio silence. On twitter or Facebook that is.
This was a trip only for those who were serious about their meat. Unlike the Indian cricket team we could not afford to carry any passengers. We would take no prisoners. This was an evening for the truest of true Food Commandos. The Finely Chopped Knights. You had to earn your stripes for this one.
Our platoon consisted of the three Bengalis and one Parsi married to a Bengali. Nepotism? But of course. I choose whom I eat with very carefully.I was going to trust my evening only in the safest of hands.
Here’s the cast.
Soumik Sen, one of my first friends through the blog. We met three Ramzans back when we went to Sarvi. We have been eating happily ever after. A professional food reviewer in his earlier life before he got into showbiz to become a writer, director, music composer and now an actor.
The other Bong, Shanky, someone who often shuttled between two chaat shops or sweet shops trying to figure out which had the best dishes. He surprised me with his knowledge of the inner lanes of old Mumbai that night. Learnt apparently while cycling across the city every weekend.
Rounding off the troops, some would say leading it, was Kurush Dalal. Archaeologist, raconteur and caterer who had grown up eating in the streets we were about the explore. A man who had recently introduced us to the wonders of Bohri Mohalla.
This was my Navy Seals. We had meat in our sights.
We met up next night converging from various parts of Mumbai. This was a Ramzan trip to Mohammed Ali Road with a twist. We weren’t headed to Minara Masjid! Instead, Shanky and Kurush, the two veterans who mapped our route, took us to Bohri Mohalla. Or ‘Mohalla’ as the Bohris call it according to Kurush. The Bohris are a sect of Muslims.
We reached the Saifee Ambulance spot below J J flyover and turned right (as we faced Byculla). This was a lane called ‘Khaara Taanki’.
“This is one of the few lanes that Busybee (Mumbai’s original food chronologist) has written extensively and repeatedly about” whispered Shanky reverentially as we entered.
I followed him into a dark, deserted lane.
“This is it? Are you sure?’
The lane a complete antithesis of the packed to the gills, bright, inundated with food stalls Minara Masjid Lane.
“This is brighter than normal” said Shanky.
“This is not the Ramzan market” said Kurush with a big smile.
“These are shops and stalls that sell food here all year through. It’ patrons, locals who come to eat here ever day of the year”.
“No fly by night stalls” said Shanky gravely.
We headed past a stall offering Chinese Dosas to the India Hotel.
A hole in the wall with a white plastic table and a few stools set outside it. The ‘hotel’ had a plastic sheet as its awning which sheltered us from the sudden bursts of rain.
This was one of those rare trips when I left the ordering in the able hands of others.
First out was baida roll or egg roll. This roll originated at Pakistan and had no relation to the egg rolls of Kolkata or China. Luscious egg coated deep fried flour batter encircling moist, warm beef. Our evening was off to a cracker of a start.
Next was bhuna. A lovely garam masala draped meat dish straight off the tawa or griddle.
“Mutton or beef?” I asked.
“You don’t ask questions here”, said Kurush who is always game for a bit of drama. “beef'’.
And then bheja masala (stir fried brains) and gurda (kidneys). Both ho hum if you ask me. Under salted. Too much of gravy for the meats to stand out. I have had better stir fried offal. In my own kitchen.
We bid farewell to Haji Saab the Methuselah like owner of the India Hotel and headed to our next stop.
This was the find of the evening for me. The baap or big daddy of Kebab Stalls which would put the over-rated, over-priced, much hyped Bade Miya of Colaba to abject shame. Skewered meat, balls of minced meat, open flames, Kurush and his scooter doubling up as our dining table … this is a place for those who are serious about their meat.
Our first plate was ready. Khiri and boti.
Khiri is the udder of the cow. I first tasted it at Nizams at Calcutta in the early 90s. I have been in love with this smoky scrunchy meat since. The Khiri at Bar-B-Que was right up with the best. Cooked to perfection, spiced to perfection. The sort of dish which would make meat lovers all over the world bow down and weep in joy.
The boti or chopped beef kebab was really good but frankly that was like expecting Vinod Khanna to be noticed in a 70s film that had Amitabh Bachchan.
We didn’t end there. Next up was kofta or minced beef ball kebab. This, unlike the other dish we ordered outside of Kurush’s reco, the gurda, was nice, juicy, dare I say wet and gave pleasure. Kurush made a face and said he would not waste stomach space.
An intense debate followed after the kebab orgies. The Bongs were rooting for more Thums Up. Swearing by the power of aerated colas to make us burp and make more space in the tummy.
Kurush, bully that he is, would have none of that and hauled us for ‘juuuus’ as he said with a huge smile. It would settle the stomach apparently.
So there we were at a street corner observing a man who lifted a knife and began hacking maniacally. The object of his apparent rage, a watermelon.
He then dunked a glass into a vessel which had a milky sherbat. Juggled the milk drink with a flourish into another empty glass. Topped it with the chopped watermelon and ice. A drink fraught with danger of waterborne diseases requiring nerves of steel and cast iron stomachs.
Yet I must say that the result of, what Soumik described as ‘pyrotechniques’ was the most amazing drink ever. A sweet, fragrant, indulgent milky treat livened up with fresh fruits and ice. For a moment you would forget the two earnest men manning the stall. For the the drink aroused visions of a Madhubala as Anarkali serving this drink to emperor Akbar.
In a matter of ten minutes we switched from the raw passions of Khiri to the more melodic promises of love that the juice held.
We next headed to ‘Gujar Street. Not ‘Gujjar’ as Shanky broke in to a cherubic smile and told me. Five times.
We were at Valibhai Payawala where we recently had one of our best meat experiences ever.
The show starts at 11.30 pm during Ramzan at Valibhai. This is to ensure that the meat doesn’t get over before the devotees finish their prayers. 8.30 pm in the rest of the year.
It was about 1045 pm. The crowds were begin to drift in. For the preparations for the night at Valibhai beats any Japanese Tea Ceremony in its pomp and seriousness.
“Did you shoot that?” ordered Kurush imperiously each time I tried to join the group at our table and off I went running again to catch the next step of the preparations.
The crowd thickened as the lids to the sunken pots were thrown open for the evening. Red bubbling watery broths with different cuts of meat. Simmering for more than six hours. The meat inside were cheaper cuts of beef or bara (big) and the odd vessel of mutton or chhota (small). Inedible if not cooked proper. A king’s treasure at Vallibhai.
Topa (ox hump), the most succulent of the lot, picchota (or ox’s tail), nihari (or ox marrow), paya (trotters) and boti (chopped meat). The toughest cuts of meats cooked to loving submission all day. The silky textures of meat the biggest advertisement for the forgotten art of slow cooking.
Chief Cook Ismail, and his assistant, went about their work with a determined look. Slivers of marrow were fished out and then put into the broths. The broths were cooking towards their final form. Most took a thick yellow hue. Their base formed by a mix of pulses. One was brown thanks to its base of ‘Harisa’ or broken wheat.
You placed your order and Chef Ismail fished out the meat and then added the broth from various pots according to a formula known only to him.
We chatted as we waited for our dinner. During the course of which Kurush boldly stated that Calcutta biryani was no biryani and that the potatoes in it had no flavour. Post which Soumik and I throttled him as Shanky gleefully captured the moment on the camera.
Don’t mess with a Bengali and his biryani Bawaji
The baara haadis or twelve pots were dressing up for dinner in the best 70mm Technicolor Eastman Kodak hues of Bollywood. Well actually nine were visible. Three inside apparently.
We had a table by the counter and next to us sat junior Valibhai. His father had opened this shop about sixty years back. The age of all the shops that we went to that night.
1130 pm and it was show time. The most poetic of meat dishes that we scooped up with pieces of bread from the breadwaalahs outside and rotis from the special rotimakers. Singed fingers be damned, we tore away bravely at the pieces of meat, for at that moment we were Laurence of Arabia and his Bedouin mates. Not lily livered city slickers.
And what a meal it was my countrymen as Mark Anthony would say with a paya soup on the house to boot as we were with the darling of Bohri Mohalla, Kurush Dalal.
“You haven’t been here in a while. Naraz to nahin (hope you are not angry”. “Where is ‘baby?” (His lovely wife Rhea) they started in every shop the moment Kurush entered.
Kurush told us that the trick is to add lemon juice to the paya soup to magically transform it to the nectar of the Gods.
He was right.
The night was still young and at the stroke of midnight Soumik and Kurush scootered off while Shanky and I followed them past Surti Baara Handi. Shanky had feebly suggested Surti and its ‘spicy’ baara haandis. Later Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson recommended Surti to me too on twitter.
TusharG Tushar A. Gandhi
@Finelychopped next time also eat at Surti 12 Handi which is down the lane from Valibhai & hot Khameri roti from next door.
But Kurush was my man and I was sticking by him. Shanky and I did cross by the rotis shop where our rotis came from that night. I clicked away though the owner was a bit jaded by all the media attention.
We then passed by a Mosque which Shanky said was the main mosque of the Bohri community of Mumbai and we reached our temple, Tawakkal Sweets. As Shanky said, “I am Bengali. I need sweets to end the dinner”.
The Minara Masjid nights of yore would end with Sulemaan Mithaiwallah and its malpuas. I was always fascinated by the sheer hedonistic decadence of eggs and flour hitting a wok full of bubbling oil here. Must confess that the experience didn’t wow me as much.
Malpuas were being fried at Tawakkal too. I asked a bystander about how many eggs went in to a malpua.
“6,7,8,9, as many as you want”.
Even Nigella couldn’t fault that.
I bit into the malpua here after I dipped it into the customary accompaniment, rabdi, or reduced milk.
I took a double take. This was very different from the one at Suleman. I actually liked it!!!!
The right mix of crunch, salt and sugar.
Our group debated the merits of the crusty edge over the flabby centre while I ate away more than half the malpua. Kurush thought we would have to pack it. He didn’t account for how much I fell in love with with the malpua at Tawakkal. There was nothing left to pack.
Just as I loved the firni here. The first time that I liked this popular boiled rice-based Muslim dessert. I have never had a firni before where the sweetness was so beautifully balanced, where the flavours were so right, so tantalising and yet not overpowering, the texture so perfect.
What a fantastic end to our Arabian Night at the ever smiling Mr Shabbir’s sweet shop, Tawakkal.
And so we stumbled out after three hours of eating. We started at 9.30 PM and ended at 12.30 AM. The best night show ever. Symbolically enough there was an ambulance waiting for us food commandos as we headed back.
The Morning After
Only a Bengali could have summed up the dinner at Bohri Mohalla the way Soumik did.
“We ate so much and yet didn’t feel heavy.”
Just as he said after our first Valibhai trip.
The best part of the dinner was that one could go back and have it again any time of the year. For these were not Ramzan specials. This was a part of life.
A sentiment beautifully echoed in this post on Malacca at Eating Asia, my favourite food and travel blog. I loved this line from the post which could so be used easily to describe Bohri Mohalla too:
'Here is Malacca as it's always been, Malacca for Malaccans, undisturbed and unperturbed'
Switch Bohri Mohalla for Malacca and you will know what I mean.
We were guests of the Bohris that evening and were privileged to be at their mohalla. The ‘undisturbed’ bit might not be forever. From what I understand, the enlightened Bohri community has plans to redevelop and modernize the area.
I was really blessed that night with one of the best eating experiences ever. The sort of experience you could be likely to enjoy only if you set your hang ups and prejudices aside and put yourself in the hands of a few good men
While change is inevitable that evening we could seep in its charm and beauty and bask in the warmth of Bohri Mohalla.