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Saturday, Dec 14, 2019

Breaking bread and barriers with Sehri: Here’s my experience of Ramzan

Taking part in a culture I was not inherently familiar with, I, too, kept Rozas for some time during Ramzan of 2018. Here is an account of the Sehris (morning meals) I ate with some eminent Delhiites.

more-lifestyle Updated: Jun 01, 2018 16:09 IST
Etti Bali
Etti Bali
Hindustan Times
A typical Sehri spread includes a mix of savoury and sweet dishes like sewaiyan, biryani, sheermal and kebabs.
A typical Sehri spread includes a mix of savoury and sweet dishes like sewaiyan, biryani, sheermal and kebabs.(Shivam Saxena/HT)

At 3 AM in the middle of the night, you are neither here nor there. The day hasn’t dawned, yet you wait in anticipation of the first rays of the sun. As per some cultures, it is considered as the most auspicious time of the day, apt for meditating and praying. And when we talk about this hour in the month of Ramzan, when Muslims fast for the entire duration of the day, it takes on a whole new meaning. It is a time of barkat—a month devoted to worship, community and charity. The day begins with Sehri, the first meal of the day. Families busy themselves in the kitchen, preparing dishes as per everyone’s liking. After this meal, no one eats or drinks water till it’s time for Iftar (evening meal with which the fast is broken).

May of 2018 was also the time I undertook the task of covering Sehri. Requesting people to not only open up their homes to me, but also a part of their culture and food heritage. This pushed me to do something I would have never thought I could do—keep rozas and fast! I was not just pushing myself physically, but also mentally. Pushing myself to take part in a culture which I was not inherently familiar with. To see how far the body goes is easy, but to see how far the mind will go is something which cannot be quantified.

Waking up in the middle of the night, knocking on doors of people who, up till that point in time, were complete strangers, and breaking bread with them. Intently listening to azaan from nearby mosques, observing families in their most intimate setup. Culturally, practices differed from one household to another, but the binding thread of religion was the same.

During this journey, I realised many things about myself. You can see me clutching tightly to the water bottle as I gulp the first sip. It makes you thankful. It makes you want to appreciate every single thing you have in life. Another fact, I do not have a specific way of praying. I pay my gratitude to the powers that are, and ask for protection and strength. I also say the Iftar dua a friend had sent me.

I also realised the kindness of strangers. On day 2, I was on official duty at the India International Centre. I got up mid-session because it was time to open my fast with Iftar. The arrangement was such that high tea would be over by the time I was supposed to eat. The organiser was aware of my situation and had graciously kept aside some food for me in the small recording room. As I sat down to eat, the handyman started pouring tea from his own cup into a styrofoam cup. He offered it to me. He also offered me a sandwich he had kept in the drawer. I offered him the biscuits I was carrying. Two strangers, divided by work, socio-cultural background, probably even religion, sharing a meal. I did not tell him what fast it was, nor gave him my name till he asked as I got up to leave. There was no need for these formalities. But maybe it was my own roadblock—a working class, nearing-30, dressed in casuals woman, who wore two kadas (bangles worn by Sikhs), identifying with a Hindu name, keeping Rozas. I did not know how to convey this emotion. But I think he would have understood.

I realised how one can be selfless in the support that Aisha Qureshi (daughter of Padma Shri, chef Imtiaz Qureshi) lends to her husband. Standing in the shadows, she seldom spoke, but as I hugged her, I choked on my tears. There is something about a woman who had long ago accepted that even though she is eldest, she would never be the rightful heir to a family legacy. Yet, her husband offered her the first bite with his own hands as they sat down to eat. I realised what perseverance is in chef Sadaf’s mother, who, despite being paralysed on her left side, never skipped to offer namaaz, and diligently kept a check on her husband’s medicines. She fasts, and prays, and is strict about meal timings. To see a new world unfold was an overwhelming experience, something which I will carry with me all my life.

An eastern UP special

Dr Mohsin Wali’s house was the first that we visited for this series. Unacquainted, fresh off the proverbial boat, we didn’t know what to expect or do. But Dr Wali, who is the former honorary physician to various Presidents of the country, put us at ease at once. He was eating kheer made with sewaiyan (vermicelli) and milk. On the table, there were dates, soaked almonds, fresh cut fruits soaked in lemon syrup, khajla and soot pheni (thread sewaiyan). “Today, we made dalia. One can have anything they like. Food for Sehri should be such that it doesn’t induce thirst or cause acidity,” he said. There are two sabzis—bhindi, and paneer, to fill the stomach for the day. “I come from Bijnor and my wife’s family is from Aligarh. People in UP like to have fruit bread with milk for sehri. Doodh-jalebi is also a favourite there. When Ramzan falls in winter, gajar ka halwa, and other winter delicacies, take centrestage,” he said.

Dr Mohsin Wali with his family during Sehri. On the table are food items like dates, khajla, sewaiyan and fresh fruits.
Dr Mohsin Wali with his family during Sehri. On the table are food items like dates, khajla, sewaiyan and fresh fruits. ( Amal KS/HT )

The doctor, dressed in a crisp chikankari kurta and pyjama, tells us about the science behind Sehri. “There is a fixed time for the meals which helps bring discipline to the eating habits. It cleanses your body and rids it of toxins,” he says. And for those who think that Iftar is a night-long glutton fest, the doctor said that it’s not so. “We don’t eat from Iftar to the next Sehri. Meal timings need to be followed strictly. Discipline is the whole point of Ramzan,” he said, adding, “It’s not that God does not want you to eat, but one should realise the importance of food and thirst. You are surrendering yourself to God’s command and train yourself for restraint.”

Joie de Jharkhand

Chef Sadaf Hussain eats Sehri with his family. The meal consists of kheer, Pitthi, sheermal and tea.
Chef Sadaf Hussain eats Sehri with his family. The meal consists of kheer, Pitthi, sheermal and tea. ( Shivam Saxena/HT )

The distant din of barking dogs in Khirkee Extension is broken by voices of boys lounging around biryani and kebab shops. Inside the apartment of chef Sadaf Hussain, there’s a din of a distant sort—that of a full house! His family—mother, father, brother—is gathered in the living room and discussions vary from food to religion, culture to corporates. The brothers, Shabi and Sadaf, were born in Patna, brought up in Ranchi, and are well-travelled. They have family in Hyderabad, too. This pan-Indian connection reflects on their food palette as well. On the table, there is sheermal (the sweet Afghani bread made with flour and milk), sheer korma (sewaiyaan made with milk, sugar and dry fruits) and Pitthi (milk-based sweet dish). “Pitthi is made by rolling out flour in one-two inch pellets and then poaching it in milk. It is a specialty in Bihar and Jharkhand,” says the chef. Sharing more about the cultural heritage, he adds, “Dates and water are the best things to have during Sehri as dates are a powerhouse of energy. Typically, Bihari kebabs, made with the distinct ingredient, Poshto, are very popular.” Interestingly, they have tea with their meal. “Chai doesn’t dehydrate you like coffee does,” he informs. After the meal, their mother offers elaichi. “This helps in curbing thirst. You can also have dahi for its cooling effect. It is a gharelu nuskha,” he says. There was cake, too, for it was his birthday on May 18, so were some baked chocolate desserts. The foodie in him couldn’t have stopped his love for baking from taking over.

Lucknowi Tehzeeb

Chef Ghulam Qureshi and his wife, Aisha Qureshi preparing for Sehri.
Chef Ghulam Qureshi and his wife, Aisha Qureshi preparing for Sehri. ( Shivam Saxena/HT )

When senior masterchef at Dum Pukht, ITC Maurya, Gulam Qureshi came down to receive us, accompanying him was the unmistakable aroma of kevda. Inside the house, we saw everyone involved in the process of Sehri. Hurried hands lending final garnishing touches to the food, children setting the table and friends helping with the seating arrangement.The meal began with a savoury sherbet made of pudina (mint), lemon, kaala namak (rock salt) and honey. “This prepares the stomach for the meal, and keeps it cool,” informs the chef. They then proceed to eating dahi ki phulkiya, which are Lucknow’s version of dahi bhalle. The phulki is made of chana dal and gram flour, and the garnish is done with ginger juliennes, another herb that helps with the digestive process. The rest of the dishes are a reflection of traditional Awadhi cuisine. Nahari gosht, chicken biryani, shahi tukda, kakori kebab, taftan bread and sheermal decorate the dining table. Out of these, shahi tukda is made by baking the bread, instead of frying it. And taftan, the chef tells us, is fermented using a culture of yeast brought from Lucknow, which gives the bread it’s distinct fluffiness and softness. It is baked with kalonji (onion seeds) and charmagaz (melon seeds).

No rice grain should break while serving biryani.
No rice grain should break while serving biryani. ( Shivam Saxena/HT )

His wife, and daughter of Padma Shri chef Imtiaz Qureshi, Aisha Qureshi, is credited with preparing Sehri in their family, but the chef takes pride in the biryani his daughter, Yousra has prepared. “There is a proper way to serve biryani from the degh. No rice grain should break in the process,” she beams. Enough food is left even after eight of us have feasted. “We send the food to the mosque so that people who can’t afford a proper meal can have their fill at Iftar,” says Qureshi.

Dilli ka dastarkhwan

Sadia Dehlvi and her son, Arman, have different food choices for Sehri. Sadia loves to eat eggs, and Arman can’t do without fruits and yoghurt.
Sadia Dehlvi and her son, Arman, have different food choices for Sehri. Sadia loves to eat eggs, and Arman can’t do without fruits and yoghurt. ( Sarang Gupta/HT )

Dishes that are unmistakably Delhi dot the dining table at author Sadia Dehlvi’s house. Nestled in the leafy avenues of Nizamuddin East, the house is steeped in culture. In between snacking and preparing the meals for Sehri, she tells us about the Sehri of the yore, when the entire clan used to gather at their ancestral house, Shama Kothi in Old Delhi. “Voh mahaul hi aisa tha. I saw my elders do it (fast), and as children, we used to be all the more excited during Ramzan. We grew up realising that Ramzan is an honoured guest that comes but once a year,” she says. As the oil sputters in a pan, she cracks open an egg. In another pan, matar kheema is heated, and she calls out to her son, Armaan to join in.

Sadia Dehlvi’s Sehri has matar kheema, goolar ki subzi, egg fry, khajla soaked in milk and feeki jalebi.
Sadia Dehlvi’s Sehri has matar kheema, goolar ki subzi, egg fry, khajla soaked in milk and feeki jalebi. ( Sarang Gupta/HT )

One by one, she starts bringing food to the table. There’s khajla (flaky pastry, which she later soaks in milk), phenia (a variant of sewaiyan), and feeki jalebi (thick roundels eaten soaked in milk). They are all brought from a store nearby, but are specialties found in Matia Mahal. But it is the goolar ki sabzi that calls for our attention. “Goolar is cluster fig. There’s a tree right in front of the house from where we pluck the fruit. It is then boiled, peeled, mashed and cooked with onions, turmeric, coriander, amchoor (mango powder) and yogurt,” says Dehlvi. Sabir, the cook who has been with her for over 22 years now, rolls out impeccably round phulkas. “Parathas and all get too heavy. After this, we like to eat fruits with yoghurt, and at times, I make fresh bel juice,” she adds. She ends the meal with a cup of tea, while Armaan takes a probiotic drink. A siren goes off as we take our leave, indicating that it is time to end Sehri and prepare for namaz.

A food culture of syncretism

Nishasta and Anda Halwa are some Awadhi delicacies that are made at Syed Mohammad Qasim house for Sehri.
Nishasta and Anda Halwa are some Awadhi delicacies that are made at Syed Mohammad Qasim house for Sehri. ( Amal KS/HT )

Navigating the winding alleys of Jamia Nagar could prove to be a daunting task, especially when you are out and about at 2.15 AM. But after much confusion, when we are led to the 3rd floor apartment of photographer Syed Mohammad Qasim, it is worth the fight. For right opposite is an apartment from which azaan is heard a little while later. “In Lucknow of our days, there used to be single storey houses and sidewalks as wide as the roads. Sehri ke waqt bahut raunaq hoti thi. All the shops selling biryani, sherbet and sweets used to open and groups of kids would pass by, creating noise,” he reminisces. Along with these groups, another group was also seen, that of the faqirs. These faqirs are called Sehri vale Baba in Old Delhi and are carrying on the tradition even today. “One person used to sing Hamd and Naat (prayers in praise of God and the Prophet, respectively), the other used to play the daf. A third person would give them company in all the singing. The purpose was to wake people up without disturbing those who were not fasting. The melodious voice was enough to shake people from their slumber. Hindus also used to take part in this ritual,” he adds. Even as he is sharing these stories of Naat, we hear a siren and a man’s mechanised voice on the loudspeaker, announcing the time for Sehri. Modern technology has taken over melody.

Syed Mohammad Qasim eats Sehri with his family.
Syed Mohammad Qasim eats Sehri with his family. ( Amal KS/HT )

The table is laid out with home-made dishes. There’s chicken kebab made with mince chicken, pudina (mint) and coriander, parathas, lacchha with milk, fresh fruits and tea. Qasim then reveals the wonders of two sweet dishes, Anda Halwa and Nishasta. “Anda halwa is an Awadhi specialty made with eggs, sugar and ghee. Nishasta is an energy-rich dish made with dry fruits (almonds, walnuts, pistachio, cashews), coconut and poshta (poppy seeds). All the dry fruits are ground and roasted, and then cooked with ghee, milk, kevda and elaichi,” he informs. Back home, the spread used to be even more lavish“My mother used to make kebabs and paratha. We also used to have namkeen kheer, which helped maintain the body’s salt levels through the day. One could add sugar separately if they liked. There, if you eat outside, it is considered disrespectful because the food cooked in every household is so rich in flavours and also carries a part of our syncretic culture,” he says.

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