Eating on the dark streets on a wet evening with fellow food fanatics…a great time to remember this song by the Doors
After waiting patiently for close to a decade and a half I finally came across my definitive Mumbai eating experience last year.
That one food experience intrinsically Mumbai that I would miss if I was ever to leave the city.
My months eating and working at Mumbai’s original commercial district, Fort, came pretty close.
Then Bohri Mohalla happened.
The night Kurush introduced us to Bohri Mohalla was life changing. An experience he himself had for the first time twenty five years back I am told,
That evening as I was feasted on the baara handi at Vali Bhai’s I knew that I had found my ‘spot’ in Mumbai. In the culinary sense of the world.
I sat back with this sense of serene satisfaction on my face as we had Sancha ice creams at the 120 year old Taj Ice Creams next door
Kurush looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and said ‘there is more’.
And so there was!
A month later we headed to Bohri Mohalla again. This time for Ramzan. Away from the fair grounds of the Minara Masjid lane. This was just about pure eating. Organs tossed on the tawa at India Hotel – gurda, kaleja and then Karachi originated rolls… kebabs at Bar B Que…specially the lip smacking mother meat, charcoal smoked khiris…then juice (watermelon & milk serbet cocktails) followed by various interesting cuts in the baara handi at Vallibhai (hump, oxtail, marrow or topa, pichhota, nalli), ice creams to cool one down at Taj Ice Creams and finished with the delightfully balanced Ramzan special malpuas at Tawakkal Sweets.
Then one went though the motions of life till it was time for Ramzan 2012.
A time for some serious questions to be asked.
Now that I had found my spot at Bohri Mohalla should I snuggle back there for my Ramzan feast? Or should I look for more?
Well, as they say men are hunters, never satisfied, and yes I wanted to explore more.
So a few of us went off social media, maintained radio silence and began to hatch plans for our next summit attempt.
The sortie would be with folks whom I could trust my dinner with. The Parsi archaeologist who grew up in Mumbai and in whose veins the stories of this city run. The Bengali cyclist food geek who know through his weekend hobby knows the bylanes of old Mumbai. The custodian of Bengali food in our group who had moved out in search of new experiences, an insomniac cook who claims that she ‘shoots, eats and doesn’t leave’. And a Bengali Kashmiri couple. Friends I had met recently. Folks who all shared ones passion for food. A passion that drives us to explore the boundaries of food without putting any limits of their own.
One had the right platoon to explore the food on the streets of Mumbai that Ramzan night.
2130 hrs…Nawab’s kebabs at Do Tanki
We hit Do Tanki after taking the right from the J J Hospital signal below the flyover as we headed towards South Mumbai.
Down a fairly empty road dotted with food stalls… stalls set on the streets or at small shops. A lane which included the famous J J mava jalebiwallah. Someone we left for another night.
We reached Nawab’s kebab shop which was just beside the Do Tanki police station easily.
One of the two (do) tanks of Do tanki were still there. Fenced anonymously. There was no signboard there telling people about the history of Do Tanki.
No worries. I had Kurush and Shanky with me. I learnt that the tanki tanks were the last of the tanks to be filled up. These two tanks were at the extreme end of Old Mumbai from an era where Dadar and Worli were the Wild West. These tanks were the city’s water reservoirs which were eventually filled up and retired.
We sat down at the plastic tables and chairs laid out on the road at Nawab’s. The kebabs were made in a tiny alley beside the main road. The crowds still sparse at the sixty year old Nawab’s kebab shop.
Nawab’s is essentially a two dish shop.
Beef kebabs and parathas.
Kurush told us that he comes here more for the memories than for the kebabs. Memories of ‘college bum days with no money in our wallets’.
Past the cashier at Nawab’s in the by- lane was young Mohammad Idris shaping the seasoned and spiced beef mince on to sheekhs and putting them on charcoal flames each time an order was placed. Kurush’s Nano would need a larger garage than the shed in which the kebabs were being made in.
Next to Idris was another chef adroitly deep frying maida (flour parathas).
The kebabs were a tad dry and chewy specially in comparison to the melt in the mouth beef sheekhs at Sadri’s. The heat of the minced green chillies in the kebab mince livening up things.
Shanky explained that the kebabs at Nawab’s were Turkish Arabic kebabs and hence the chewy meat texture. And he was right. They did bring back memories of the kebabs one had had at the Piknik Kofte shops at Istanbul.
The kebabs at Sarvi on the other hand were Irani in genre I was told and hence the near pate-like meat creaminess in their texture
To us the highlight of the fare at Nawab’s were the parathas.
Crunchy and delightfully munchy. Platters of carby divinity with a touch of deep fried raciness.
I got excited when I saw the guy at the counter roll kebabs into parathas for a customer and I tried to get Kolkata type rolls done and without the pudina chutney they added here. Tasted a tad roll-like in this form though with the raw onion soaked in lime juice giving life to the the dry meat kebabs. The rest of the group was bemused and they said that I had just eaten what he had eaten earlier in a different package.
Well the group did patiently wait while I photographed and talked to folks around so they had earned their right to jibe if you asked me.
2200 HRS…. Qeema (sic) at Ishad Bhai’s
We next headed to Duncan Street to reach Ishad Bhai’s Qeema (kheema or minced meat) stall.
There stood this hardy moustachioed chef who looked rather different from Isadora Duncan whose name was honoured in this road.
Ishad Bhai sat with a huge vessel of Qeema or kheema curry which he had cooked since 6 pm in the style of Bareilly in UP where he had moved into Mumbai from.
The kheema curry thin, spicy and hot, interspersed with dried peas and soft cubed potatoes.
We were lucky as Ishad Bhai was about to leave to make beef sheekhs at a private Iftar party.
“Baare aasha se hum aaye hain” I said in Hindi to the mirth of the others while the girls in the group made big puppy eyes and Kurush did a Pran in Deewar big man act. All of this worked and Ishad Bhai laid out a table and a few chairs for us on the footpath and then doled out the hot and spicy Qeema curry for us. A dish he makes and sells only in the month of Ramzan.
We were lucky that evening.
With the Qeema he took out huge packs of ladi pao or local bread to mop up the curry with.
Mirroring our excitement Ishad Bhai decided to give us a special treat.
Nalli or bone marrow.
He fished out big shank bones from the vessel and put them in plates in front of us. Even this little pressure was enough to coax the silken marrow to come out of the marrow bone and reach out to us. The creamy marrow at Ishad’s was the reason why the food cliche ‘bursting with flavours’ was invented.
With each bite of hot marrow scooped with pao, my grin got wider.
How debauched could one get? How pure could food get? How beautiful could life get?
This nalli was decadent in the most ‘Downfall of the Mughal Empire’ sense of the world. Sheer food hedonism.
2230 Hrs…. Harisha at Nagpada
We asked Ishad Bhai for more food options and he guided us to Sultan’s, one of the stalls Nagpada opposite, Gama Rotiwala, one of Mumbai’s last roti makers and bara handi shops.
These stalls were selling a number of local broths and at Sultan’s stall they were made by Maqbool Mia.
The harisha, I was told, is a broth made with milk, cream and whole garam masala cooked over a slow fire to which wheat grains were added and at the end had some shredded cooked beef added to it.
In the case of the harisha these were caramelised onions and a dash of lime juice. Standard with haleem too.
Not a taste which pleased all in the group. I liked the creaminess of the dish but would not go out of the way for it.
2300 Hrs…Bohri Mohalla
Explorations done and as cries of ‘Tawakkal Tawakkal reached a crescendo in our group we headed to Bohri Mahalla past the Saifee Ambulance stand under J J Flyover.
A quick stop at Bar b Que or Haji kebabs for a plate of khiri (cubed cow’s udder) kebabs had to be done first no matter how full we were. We couldn’t say no to a mouthful of the mother meat and at Bar B Que they make one of the best khiris to be had for love or money.
Very subtly spiced. The creamy near soft cheese-like texture of the meat came out beautifully in a mist of a hint of smoky charcoal from the grill. You took each bite and felt the morsels of heavenly goodness give in and spread across leaving your palate refreshed, tantalised and rejuvenated.
The was the sort of dish where you moaned with joy and ecstasy with each subsequent bite.
If you are squeamish it is your loss.
And then finally Tawakkal Sweets and its malpuas. These gargantuan floppy pancakes of egg drenched artery clogging bites are a speciality of Ramzan.
I have not come across anyone who makes them as well as the elderly bearded chacha (uncle) at Tawakkal.
The sweetness of the malpua was just right and did not go overboard…the texture a mix of crispy crunch and soft centred bits and both had its takers. Topped with a bit of malai or cream this was as sweet an ending as the best of fairy tales could ever get.
Then there were aflatoons, milk cakes, firnis but frankly the malpuas are what well and truly rock at Tawakkal’s.
And remember you won’t get them during the rest of the year.
If you wanted to take the feeling of peace and goodwill to mankind home then like us you could step across to Taj Ice cream next door and take boxes of creamy ice cream flavoured with fresh fruits and that peaceful easy filling.
2400 Hrs… The Cinderella Hours
It was close to midnight and the rain gods had been kind to us. We were satiated and ready to head home making space for the crowds who were coming for a well deserved dinner after a day of fasting and then prayers in the evening.
We bid goodbye to Bohri Mohalla and the bakery whose chimney had kept pace with the rising skyscrapers around it.
Till next time.
Each year I am just amazed to see how the spirit of Ramzan spreads across Mumbai as Muslims and non Muslims head to streets laden with special Ramzan feasts. Each Eid I fell really special when or Muslim neighbours get us biryani and kheer from their kitchens. I am a happy panda when our Christian neighbours share their cakes, kulkuls, marzipans and guava cheeses with us at Christmas. And I still can’t forget the afternoon at out late late Sindhi uncle’s house enjoying laddoos, modaks, alu tak and kadi chawal at Ganpati.
As a Bengali I have been privileged to have been hosted by folks from different cultures, communities, castes, clans and religions at Mumbai. Just as hopefully some of them have come to the Bengali Durga Pujas across the city and eaten at the food stalls there or had the Bhog which is served.
Food unites all as they say and few things in Mumbai typify this the way Ramzan does.