Iftaar: This year, take the road less travelled, says Kunal Vijayakar

During Ramzaan, the Muslim month of fasting and abstinence, Mohammed Ali Road erupts into festivity every evening, as the day’s fast is broken . All along the main street and the narrow bylanes, stalls sell kababs, samosas, seekhs, tikkas, bater, rolls and every conceivable delicacy created on a tava.(Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
During Ramzaan, the Muslim month of fasting and abstinence, Mohammed Ali Road erupts into festivity every evening, as the day’s fast is broken . All along the main street and the narrow bylanes, stalls sell kababs, samosas, seekhs, tikkas, bater, rolls and every conceivable delicacy created on a tava.(Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
Published on May 10, 2019 05:36 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKunal Vijayakar

This is a month when it is an absolute joy to be in a city like Mumbai. It is the month of Ramzaan and some of the creaky, time-worn heritage precincts of the city, that have been battered with neglect, suddenly change into bright, shiny bazaars of satin, bangles, beaded caps, perfume and, above all, food. Isn’t it a wonderful paradox that a festival observed as a month of fasting should invoke so much preoccupation, passion and zeal for eating and food?

The focal point for me is always Mandvi and the lane flanking Minara Masjid towards Zakaria Masjid, off Mohammed Ali Road. Minara Masjid lights up with a thousand lights, and in the shadow of the iconic green mosque shine the even brighter colours of the sweets at Suleiman Usman Mithaiwalla. Pink Raspberry Patiya, dark maroon Anjeer Halwa, flaming yellow Kesar Pista Halwa, orange Badami Halwa, green Pineapple Halwa, snowy white Sutarfeni and golden brown Malpuas, made by mixing yolks, batter and sugar syrup and frying until golden. And of course the ever-popular phirni and aflatoon, both available in an exhibition of colours and flavours.

With Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala on one side and Zam Zam Sweets on the other, if you dare to trash through the crowd and jostle your way into the narrow street, you’ve entered one of the largest roadside displays of food in the country. The air is thick and greasy with the smoke of frying, barbecuing and heating. There is food colour everywhere — blood red chickens on skewers, fluorescent hara kababs and chrome yellow malai tikkas all waiting to be grilled.

One side of the road is lined with stalls selling tandoori, kababs, samosas, seekhs, tikkas, bater, rotis, rolls and every conceivable delicacy created on a tava. On the other side are chairs and tables, where reverberations of a great cacophonous symphony echo, as street criers try enticing you to their stall to sell you their bheja, gurda, kapura, kiri and kaleji.

In the narrow bylanes, the air is thick and greasy with the smoke of frying, barbecuing and heating. There is food colour everywhere — blood red chickens on skewers, fluorescent hara kababs and chrome yellow malai tikkas all waiting to be grilled. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
In the narrow bylanes, the air is thick and greasy with the smoke of frying, barbecuing and heating. There is food colour everywhere — blood red chickens on skewers, fluorescent hara kababs and chrome yellow malai tikkas all waiting to be grilled. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)

Once I’ve had enough of the clammy chaos and have started to break into muggy perspiration, I usually turn around and walk away, because the food here is highly overrated and ludicrously overpriced during this month. Maybe the iconic Chinese ‘n’ Grill, a restaurant deep inside the mayhem does do a commendable Nihari, yet I’d rather walk down the road to Noor Mohammadi and have mine in relative peace and tranquility.

If you want to escape the madness, then Bhendi Bazaar, which is just a couple of junctions away, is where Bohri Mohalla is. In there at the junction of Saifee Jubilee Street and Khara Tank Road is Firoz Farsan, who makes Patrel Biryani. I don’t know why it is called that, since there is no rice in the dish. It’s a thick, spicy gravy of meat with patrel in it. It’s available all year round and is unbelievably eye-opening.

There is, of course, Surti Baara Handi right behind it, at Kumbharwada, where different cuts of meat like pichhota (buff tail), paya (goat’s trotters), nalli nihari (marrow) etc are cooked tender in twelve vessels with secret spices, and can be ravaged with huge hot khameeri rotis from a roti fellow next door.  

Then there is Hamza for kiri kababs, also next door, and Jilani, whose owner Alambhai does great bheja, kheema, liver, kidney, baida roti, paya, and a spicy dry sukha potato. Alambhai is positively in love with me, and makes me feel like I’m the king of Pakmodia Street every time I visit. Bhendi Bazaar is also home to Tawakkal Sweets. In this season they make unbelievably delicious Mango Mawa Barfi. It’s soft and rich and is made fresh every day. Tawakkal is also known for their Malai Khaja, gentle sheets of puff pastry filled with fresh, sweetened malai.

For an even quieter Ramzaan feast, head towards Crawford Market and Nagdevi Street. The Baara Handi here is less spicy and genuinely full of marrow. You can sit calmly at a makeshift table and devour a few plates with some hot roti. In Chippi Chawl at Nagdevi Cross Lane is Ruhani Restaurant; if you don’t eat anything else there, just grab a Seekh Paratha, and I won’t say more.

I have to confess, though, that over the years I’ve pretty much stopped going to the streets to eat during Ramzaan. It’s hot, crowded and the effort just doesn’t seem worth the food. It’s a simple case of ‘been there, done that’, especially since the food honestly hasn’t evolved for the better, and in some cases is under attack by the Chinese. And while I am assuming that I can still eat anything, anywhere, I think my palate has matured to the point where I’ve become a tad gnostic.

Amidst all this newfound disdain, one redeeming thing is that, a few years ago, Jaffer Bhai, the famous biryani franchise, opened a branch right there at the beginning of Mohammed Ali Road. When in doubt, I just incautiously head there. Their roadside tava counter that appears only during this month has it all — samosa, chicken lollipops, Indianised spring rolls and several things I cannot recognise, all fried, dark orange, and served with an oily Indo-Chine sauce that seems to go with everything and admittedly looks provocative.

But I go there for the Khichda, Mutton Nihari, Chicken Leg Barra, Dabba Ghosh, Kheema and Mutton Biryani. It’s Jaffer Bhai. Need I say more?

Now, having read patiently through my musings, you could also completely ignore all this street food and everything I’ve said and maybe turn a corner this Ramzaan and join me in my next column. Next week I hope to take you out of Mohammed Ali Road, to discover some other haunts in some other places, elsewhere. Some fancy, some not so fancy. So until then, don’t fill up!

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021