|Firni at Noor Sweets. Do you want to be the popular one or the one that stands out? Do both have their place in the world?|
A journey of self discovery
The first time that I conducted a Finely Chopped Food Walk was at the end of the year 2012. This was at Bohri Mohalla in Mumbai. A place introduced to me by my friend, Dr Kurush Dalal. An archaeologist, caterer, food historian and a proud Bombay boy. The Mohalla, as locals call it, was relatively unknown then.
Today, it is the Mumbai Ramzan food 'hidden gem insider tip' that everyone will tell you about but then even the path to the Mt Everest is packed with people today!
2013 is the year when I moved out of a full time corporate career in market research and decided to try my luck as an independent food writer. The food walks that I did then were my first 'entrepreneural' foray into the field one could say, if one was to discount the odd brand promo that I had worked on before that. The most popular of my walks were the Ramzan food walks that I did at Bohri Mohalla. They were so popular, that I would often have to two during the period to accommodate all!
The plan on these walks was simple. Participants of the walk were to assemble at the meeting point... the Sarvi ambulance parking spot. This often led to confusion since unlike now, none of the places there were on Google maps then. We would then start off our walk and I would have to do the intro a number of times for those who would lose their way and reach late. It was all part of the fun and everyone was most patient and kind.
Dusk would have set in by then. The fast broken by the residents of the Mohalla, the shops finally open for business. We would go from one shop to another as I would share the stories of those who ran the eateries with our group and offer a taste of their food too. The route was Taj Ice Creams (seasonal hand churned sancha ice creams to cool down people after their long journey), patrel biryani at Firoz Farsan, nankhatai at the Maadiya Bakery, pickle tasting and buying at the pickle shop next door, gurda and bheja fry at India Hotel, khiri and kofta with paratha at Haji Tikka, 'juice' at Imam Sherbatwala, channa kaleji at the chanawala, pulao at Salman's, bara handi at Valibhai, and when it shut down for a bit, at Surti's Bara Handi, and then to Noor Sweets for freshly fried jalebis and then to Tawakkal's for malpuas and phirni before we called it a day with some badam pak from Tawakkal packed to take home.
It was all about a discovery of food and of getting to know the people behind it and making new friends in the process.
|Felt so good to see the The Travelling Belly poster proudly displayed at|
The food walks formed the genesis of my book, The Travelling Belly, which I began writing in 2014. The contract was godsend at a time when I was looking for meaning in life and was wracked by anxiety and nervousness and a sense of hopelessness too at times. Writing the book was just the fillip that I needed and my story of hope began at Bohri Mohalla.
I had reduced the number of food walks that I conducted by the time the book was ready to come out in 2017. I had realised that writing and telling stories is where I get my highs from. That conducting food walks - announcing, marketing, following up, payments - required too much of event management skills for my tastes and energy levels. My volumes were too low for me to hire anyone to help me on the walks. Moreover, the more one wrote about such places, the less of a hidden gem they became and that impacted the premium one could charge.
Not writing for a bit made me restless. Not conducting food walks, not so much.
I slowly moved from a model of doing public food walks to one of conducting bespoke food walks for small groups who reached out to me or ones for brands such as Sodexo, SodaBottleOpenerWala, and P&G. These were for their clients, employees or customers. I did my first out of Mumbai Finely Chopped food Walks. First in Bengaluru for Sodexo and then in Delhi for Attache Travel, and with that the first phase of my Bohri Mohalla Ramzan Finely Chopped Food Walks came to an end.
I had moved on you. The last time I went there was to give copies of my book to the owners of the restaurants featured in it and to take their blessings in mid 2107.
My relationship with Bohri Mohalla did not end there though. There were some from the Mohalla who stayed in touch with me... Hateem Uncle of Taj Ice Cream, his nephew Mustafa, Huzefa of Norr Sweets...for example. And I would keep giving my recommendations to people who reached out to me wanting to know where to go to eat at Bohri Mohalla.
The gift of rice
What happened to the biryani you promised, you ask? Well, let me tell you about a pulao first.
2014 was a landmark year for me as far as writing was concerned after a rather desolate and lonely period between 2012 & 2013. That is also when I had turned to Nicherin Buddhism looking for answers. I was advised to understand the purpose behind my life first. That the the rest would fall into place once I did so, including my career, I was assured. I was told to have faith in myself. And in my ability to make a fresh start.
A serious round of introspection made me realise that sharing stories of hope, harmony and joy is what excited me the most. This formed the framework of what I wrote from then on. I sought out the stories of those who lay behind that I loved and tried to share their stories with my readers.
Work began to follow and life became pleasantly different from the year of darkness that preceded it. It is not that it has always been a smooth run since then but having an anchor and a sense of self belief and faith helped. To start with, I made peace with and then discovered the joys of working from home. Let me tell you a story about that.
This happened when I sat down for lunch at home one afternoon, a few Ramzans back. Our cook, Banu, brought out a chicken pulao from the kitchen that I had requested her to make for me.
She then said,"Please check for the salt. I have not tasted it as I am fasting."
It suddenly struck me that while my Ramzan walks and articles till then had always focused on the food, I did not really know much about what the month is all about.
So I did what I had never done in all these years. I 'spoke' to Banu. I had a conversation with her. This was different from the functional/ job oriented talks that I would have with her. I like to be left alone when at home and do not like to get involved in chatter you see.
|Bhaat dal and alu bhaaja that Banu had cooked me yesterday while I wrote this post. The recipes are based on memories from my mother's kitchen. I added the salt while cooking since Banu could not taste and check|
I asked Banu about how she broke her Ramzan fast and what the occasion meant to her. No, the answer was not 'kebabs and nihari and malpuas' in case you thought it was so. She cannot afford it. So Rooh Afza it is and whatever is cooked at home through the year. A lot of which would be vegetarian. Though she does like to set off for work after a hearty meal of kheema at times during the rest of the year.
I wrote about our conversation on my blog. Some of my Muslims reached out to me on reading it. They offered to help me fill the gap in the more philosophical part behind Ramzan. Something which our Banu was not be entirely privy to due to her lack of formal education.
Ramzan (Ramadan) is about gratitude they told me. About helping out those less fortunate than one. And about discipline. Learning not to give in to ones desires or to be ruled by them.
I subsequently added what I understood from these conversations to the post that I had written. Hoping that my fellow non-Muslims would understand a bit more about this important custom just as I had.
My Mumbai Ramzan Food Trail for LivingFoodz.com
|With Rashid Hakim, his elder brother, and his son. Noor Mohammadi Hotel|
One of my favourite concepts in Buddhism is that of the 'oneness of self and environment'. It says that your environment is a reflection of your inner self and determination. I saw this play out once again during Ramzan this year as I have many times before that.
The thing is that I had been wanting to do videos for a while with a channel but did not know how. Then someone from Living Foodz, a TV channel dedicated to food, got in touch with me on Instagram out of the blue. Could I do a Ramzan Trail for them, she asked. To be hosted on their website.
I was quite thrilled about this and we quickly locked in on our discussions and set off to shoot one Monday after much deliberation on what to cover and what to leave out. We zeroed in on Bhendi Bazar and a bit of Bohri Mohalla. The aim to show something slightly different and yet vintage. To give a flavour of what is on offer, not aim to create a directory/ video listicle of Mumbai Ramzan eats. A project that was right up my street.
We started before Iftar or the break of the Roza (daily) fast at sunset. In the earlier walks, I would impatiently wait for the food stalls to open after Iftar and then start. Dissociated in a sense from what was happening around us. This was a more grown up version!
Our starting point this time was the Noor Mohammadi Hotel at Bhendi Bazar as we had decided to spread beyond just Bohri Mohalla. Noor Mohammadi was opened in 1923 and has seen a facelift since when I had first gone there in 2009. It is a ten minutes walk away from Bohri Mohalla and is a Mumbai classic for sure.
It was that evening at Noor Mohammadi when I experienced my first ever Iftar and it was a truly humbling experience.
They had set up a makeshift counter outside the restaurant from which they were selling spring rolls, chicken wontons, chicken lollipops and so on. Manning the counter was third generation owner, Rashid Hakim, his elder brother, and his son (the fourth generation), warmly greeting every customer despite the rush. The new introductions on the menu were Rashid's brainchild.
"You have to build on the past and move with the times," said Rashid most philosophically.
I saw people eagerly buy boxes of snacks and rush off. To go and give to their neighbours, friends and family for Iftar, explained Rashid. Rashid himself would then pop home to break the fast with his family but not before he ensure that sealed cups of drinking water and dates were distributed by him and his family to all who could be at the street for Iftar.
Yes, dates are what you break your fast with. Not nihari or phirni as I learnt!
|Iftaar at Noor Mohammadi with the amazing team from LivingFoodz.com|
Menu: chicken Hakimi, nihari, chicken Sanju Baba, dal ghee, roti, fruits
Before leaving for home, Rashid insisted that the crew and I stay back for a meal. We could not say no to him and hung on.
As the time came to break the fast came (7.18 pm that evening), I saw waiters come out of the kitchen bearing trays filled with glasses of Rooh Afza infused sweetened milk for all in the restaurant. As we sat down, we saw that plates of cut fruits and dates were put at every table to break the fast with. This was on the house. A way by which the Hakimis expressed their gratitude for all that life had given them.
No questions were asked about whether you were actually Muslim and were breaking your fast here; or had just come to enjoy the nihari, chicken Sanju Baba, or the yakhni pulao and phirni. Everyone got these treats. As they would in a Langar in a Gurudwara or in the queue for khichuri bhog in a Bengali Durga Puja.
We made it a point to wait till the others began to eat. This was the time to learn some lessons about discipline after all. And empathy too.
Satiated with the 'milk of human kindness,' we headed next door to Shalimar. A restaurant established 49 years back in 1970. Their general manager and a former hotelier. Wasim Pathan, proudly told us about how what had started as a humble sugarcane juice and cold drink shop has now expanded to became a restaurant with many levels and 600 (!) items on its menu. A number that he repeated quite a few times.
|Roomali magic at Shailmar|
My heart was set on the raan biryani here. A dish which I had heard so much about.
An entire thigh of goat (raan), was marinated and then slow roasted in the tandoor for two hours. It was then cooked with a special rice called dum rice for about half an hour with cashews and boiled eggs strewn on it and, for some reason, sliced carrots, cucumber and beets.
The hypnotising taste of the meat and its sheer succulence, the sophistication of the flavour of the rice, the crunch of the toasted cashews and the memories of home (Kolkata biryani) that the boiled eggs evoked, made this my new favourite biryani in Mumbai. A dish which truly redefined the word 'hedonism.'
Yes, this is the biryani that I was talking about in the headline of this post. My discovery of the year!
|My joy at having discovered the biryani of my dreams. Come join me?|
The only 'problem' was that the raan biryani needs at least 4 to 5 people to finish and in his enthusiasm to feed us, Wasim had also called for a plate of kebabs (including a tangdi kebab which had mutton kheema stuffed inside), chilli chicken (their most popular dish!) and a most decadent and delicious chicken murgh masalam.
The meal, and especially the raan biryani, was a reminder that you can never embark on a Ramzan Ifatr feast alone. It is all about sharing after all.
I made a mental note as I left, to go back with my friends someday to treat them to the raan biryani at Shalimar. But wait, there's more.
I did go back to back to Bohri Mohalla this year and it felt so good!
A fresh start where it all began
For dessert we headed to Bohri Mohalla. We walked past folks selling 'Hyderabadi haleem' from the pavement on one side and then Pappu Juicewallah on the other whose dildar (a milkshake served in an empty tender coconut shell), something similar in a muskmelon shell and mango cream evoked the sort of crowd frenzy which would make you assume that 'bhai' (Salman Khan) had been sighted. The sort of crowds that would give the Beatles an inferiority complex in their heydays.
I saw a similar tableaux at the Pappu Juice House at the entrance of Bohri Mohalla. A place which was a nameless, nondescript juice stall once when we would meet there for our walks back in the day. They have grown and how!
A smile lit up my face the moment I walked into Bohri Mohalla. A rush of memories came back. A feeling of immense gratitude too.
The place looked a bit different from before. The shops in front of the India Hotel, Taj Ice Cream, side had been raised with a new tower standing close by. The redevelopment of Bohri Mohalla had finally begun to take shape.
|Outside Haji Tikka where the founder's son is carrying on his father's leagacy|
The place looked a bit naked with Feroz Farsan, the acharwallah and the Maadiya bakery (whose proceeds supported an orphanage in Surat I was told) gone.
Haji Tikka was now a stand below the starry skies with not even an awning to cover it. Just as its founder, who is no more, had once started the business year back. His son welcomed me with a smile. You do get the best kebabs in Mumbai here.
India Hotel opposite it looked a bit empty too. The young manager called out to me, "where were you all this while?"
|At India Hotel. The elderly owner had gone to say his|
prayers at the mosque
A number of the shops such as Taj and Tawakkal have become smaller with individual members of the family getting their own shares in some cases with the redevelopment scheme.
Mustafa Icecreamwala, who belonged to one branch of the Taj Ice Cream family, has now moved to Thane from where he has started life afresh, making sancha ice creams himself this time. His cousins from the side of Hateem uncle, run Taj at Bohri Mohalla and its popularity has grown over the years. They have expanded their business and now have an outlet in Bandra too.
|With Moayaad Mithaiwala at Shabbir's Tawakkal. On the menu: malpua with rabdi & malai, firni, malai khaaja, sutarfeni, badam pak, aflatoon|
I stopped at Shabbir Tawakkal's. It is run by Moayaad Habbir Mithaiwala, third generation descendant of this family business. His grandfather, the late Abdullah Mithaiwallah, had started the shop 70 years back in the 1950s, selling malpua, jalebi and dahi vada at the start.
The range has expanded now and they offer a variety of Bohri sweets such as the barfis, malai khaajas, aflatoons and firnis. The shop next door, called just Tawakkal, has a similar menu and each has its own fans.
I went to offer my condolences to Moayaad when I heard of the demise of his father. Shabbir uncle, whose smiling face was a fixture in my Bohri Mohalla visits. We exchanged fond memories of him (Shabbir uncle) over malpua and malai; with Moyaad taking out a fresh precious moments from a busy night to speak with me. He was surely doing his father proud.
This is the last Ramzan for Tawakkals and Taj at this location, Moyaad told me. They will be shifted to the block next door in a few months.
|Jalebi time with Huzefa Mithalwala at Noor Sweets|
We ended the trail at Noor Sweets in a quieter by-lane at Bohri Mohalla.
Current co-owner, Huzefa Mithaiwallah, who also runs a tutorial class, told me about how his grandfather (the late Hassanali Ablibai Mithaiwala) had come to Bohri Mohalla from Baroda more than 70 years back and had introduced the Gujarati Bohri style of jalebis to the Mohalla at this shop.
"This is not the mava jalebi that you hear of today. This is the 'authentic' one," said Mustafa.
He told me that his shop would be where it stands for the next two years at least as the redevelopment is being done phase-wise.
"Are you happy about it," I asked. Would he not want to go to the new building?
"This is where my grandfather had started. I am happy to stay on longer here. It reassures those around us."
"How is doing business during Ramzan any different," I asked Huzefa.
"It is very different," he replied with a smile. "In Ramzan, compared to the rest of the year, you have people from all communities and from all over coming here to eat. That is what makes Ramzan different and adds to the joy of being at the shop during the period for me."
What he said was true. Just before leaving Tawakkal, I had bumped into a group of college kids who seemed be out on their first Ramzan outing. Most were non-Muslims. Welcomed warmly by Moyaad and the women in his family. Packing in malpuas and rabdis and phirnis with the the sense of elan that high metabolism of youth espouses.
The youth will show us the way as they say.
|It is the team that works behind the scenes that makes a project a success says|
Dr Daisaku Ikeda of the SGI and in the team at LivingFoodz.com, I had the
Living on a prayer. With some biryani on the side.
As I headed home that evening, it struck me that that in the last six months or so, I have focused on exploring and writing more about stories that strike a chord with me and which interest me, than the converse. I have not actively chased work or trends. Just kept typing meticulously in my corner.
Most of what I share are not on commission. They are just about things that happen in my life, the people I eat, the food I eat.
They do get me the odd wonderful assignment though such as this one with Living Foodz.
I realised that while it did not seem clear to me then, all my posts on Bohri Mohalla, the food walks that I conducted here in the past (some when I was wracked by anxiety inside), my chapter on Mumbai in my book, the videos that I shot there; were all in preparation for this one evening. How cool is that?!
Here's wishing everyone a Ramzan Mubarak to all and Eid Mubarak too.
|That's as big as a 'thank you' smile can get. Ramzan is about feeling gratitude as they say.|
The LivingFoodz.com story on the walk with the two videos that we shot there which brings it alive
From the blog
1. The first Finely Chopped Food Walk at Bohri Mohalla
2. My first visit to Noor Mohammadi
3. On understanding the meaning of Ramzan through conversations with our cook Banu and my friends from across the world
1. Bhendi Bazar on Travel & Living USA (starts after 5.14 sec): 2012 on my channel Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar (please do subscribe to it)
2. Ramzan food walk at Bohri Mohalla on The Finely Chopped, 2015
Link to buy my book, The Travelling Belly