Blueberry firni, selfies: The new flavours of Ramzan in Mumbai
Amid a redevelopment plan, food walks and more tourists than ever, a timeless feast in an ancient market is all set to get a new look.more lifestyle Updated: Jun 02, 2018 21:52 IST
The first time I went to Bohri Mohalla for Ramzan was in 1998. A Bohri had moved into my building in Colaba, in south Mumbai, and noticing my interest in food offered to take me on a guided tour of the neighbourhood famous for its all-night Ramzan feasts.
It’s a rite of passage for anyone living in Mumbai — like going to Bandra for the Mount Mary feast or to Shivaji Park at Durga Puja.
I was 26 when my neighbour took me to Bohri Mohalla. A year later, Nooruddin Ahmed, one of the partners of the iconic Bagdadi restaurant in Colaba, introduced me to the stalls at Minara Masjid in Bhendi Bazaar. These two areas along Mohammad Ali Road are where most of the Ramzan feasting is concentrated.
Mohammad Ali Road is not necessarily stomach-friendly — the stalls are crowded and not overly hygienic, the food is oily, either spicy or very sweet. But the bustle and the grunginess are part of the experience, and at some point, most Mumbaiites become part of a late-night expedition of college students, colleagues or gullie friends out to get some of the tastiest street food in the country.
It’s here that most Mumbaiites eat their first malpua (served with lashings of rabri) and their first roasted bater or quail.
The narrow lanes are teeming with life — shops with bright incandescent lights, pedestrian and two-wheeler traffic weaving about, outsiders like me settling in behind rough-hewn wooden tables.
I remember eating thick, meaty seekh kebabs served with generous quantities of mint at Nawab Seekh Paratha, wiping our greasy hands on torn squares of newspaper.
At Haji Tikka we waited for kiri (udder), kaleji (liver) and botis to come fresh off the sigdi, drinking apple-flavoured milk at Imam Sharbatwala down the road and ending the evening with custard-apple ice cream at Taj Ice Cream.
Ramzan is very different here today. The Minara Masjid area is more crowded and noisier, but more of the crowds are tourists. Outsiders have always been drawn to the colour and energy of this narrow lane with its rows of sigdis and tawa-cooked food, but camera phones, social media and curated food walks have made this less of a daunting experience.
Bohri Mohalla, always the quieter of the lanes, feels deserted. Many of the buildings had been torn down for the proposed cluster redevelopment — the whole of Bhendi Bazaar, with its higgledy-piggledy low-rise construction, is being reimagined as zoned residential, recreational and commercial spaces.
Most of the food stalls are still there, but in modified form — some are sharing space, others have shrunk, or shifted. Surti 12 Handi and Valibai Payawala have relocated their pots, pans and bara handis.
Not all the change is structural; quite a lot is cultural too. As the proportion of outsiders to locals changed, the food changed too. There is more of that generic tandoori masala in everything. There are places that call themselves things like BAR-B-QUE and Chinese n Grills — the latter, incidentally and rather ironically, still does the freshest kidney and brain.
There are flashes of innovation on menus. Mango phirni started appearing next to the traditional offerings of plain and saffron a few years ago. Now there is blueberry phirni too. I wouldn’t be very surprised if a butterfly pea flower tea flavoured version appeared next.
One not-so-obvious change was pointed out to me by Parvez Diwan, a tech consultant who grew up in Bohri Mohalla and has been eating there for over 40 years.
“When we were children, every place specialised in just one dish; you went to one person only for naan sandwich, another person for kebabs. Today, everyone does everything,” he says.
While the cluster redevelopment will undoubtedly bring order to these streets and safer housing for the residents, I fear that in the process the neighbourhood will lose much of what made it unique. Once the redevelopment is complete, I suspect Ramzan at Bhendi Bazaar will feel less like a timeless feast in an ancient market and more like an evening out at one of those open-air food courts one sees all over the world.
(Antoine Lewis is a food writer and consultant based in Mumbai)