Along with October and December, this is my favourite time of the year. October ushers in the Big Fat Durga Pujo Madness (mostly October – I have to refer to Beni Madhob Shil’s Phool Ponjika for confirmations. The ‘ponjika’ is the Hindu Almanac by the way, and knowing the plurality of Bengali festivals, it is quite essential for Bengali homes) which is almost a month-and-a-half of shopping-hogging-drinking-socializing-hogging some more. December is good ol’ Christmas and is the warmest time of the year for me. Nothing soothes my soul more than Kenny G soulfully playing ‘Silent Night’ while a permanent aroma of cake baking hangs in the air. And then, at midnight, the church bell tolls, rice lights flicker everywhere to their set choreography, and you dream of the magnificent Christmas feast while singing ‘Rudolph’.
That brings us to this month – Ramzan. I fast during this period, something I have been doing for four years now for reasons I hold very dearly to my heart. What makes this month an absolute delight is the variety of delicacies that are typical to this period of prayer and abstinence. While my Sehri (First meal of the day before sun break) tends to be very simple – juices, cakes, and tit-bits – major feasting happens during Iftar (post-fast meal after sun down) and for dinner after Tarawi (special prayers that take place during the month of Ramzan). It should also be noted that waking up for Sehri (4 AM) proves to be quite an ordeal for me and often it is blissfully slept over – like today.
During Ramzan, roadside haleem and khichda stalls conjure themselves from thin air around Mumbai. While I have quite enjoyed the haleem even back in Calcutta, I was very recently introduced to khichda, a close cousin.
Haleem and Khichda – A Detailed Understanding!
Literally, haleem means ‘patient and merciful’. It is served during the month of Ramzan, and is considered to be the ideal dish to break the fast with. Haleem originates from Iran and Afghanistan and is a rich Persian delicacy which was introduced to India during Akbar’s rule. Khichda is a vernacular (and evidently spicier) derivative of the dish.
Haleem is made from wheat, ground meat, a mix of protein-rich lentils, spices and ghee with lemon juice and other condiments. The dish is slow cooked for seven to eight hours, which results in a paste-like consistency, with the taste of spices and meat blending with wheat. In khichda, the chunks of meat remain intact, while in haleem the meat chunks are taken out of the pot, bones are removed, meat is ground to as smooth a paste as possible and put back in the pot. It is further cooked until the meat completely blends with the lentils, wheat, and lentil mixture. It is garnished with caramelized onions, chopped coriander, and hot green chilies. [Reference: http://nidhiraizada.blogspot.in]
The Hyderabadi Haleem (both India and Pakistan. Pakistan also has a Hyderabad, remember?) has attained global fame as the most delectable preparation of the haleem. Traditionally, Hyderabadi haleem is cooked on a low flame of firewood for up to 12 hours in a bhatti (a cauldron covered with a brick and mud kiln). One or two men stir it continuously with wooden paddles throughout its preparation, until it reaches a sticky-smooth consistency, similar to mashed mince. In 2010 Hyderabadi haleem was granted Geographical Indication status (GIS) by the Indian GIS registry office, making it the first non-vegetarian dish in India to be listed as GIS.
But, the feast does not stop just there. It is quite an introduction though. While the shawarma is my go-to snack (and meal) at least once a week, because of my partner-in-crime’s oddball desire to feel ‘Muslim’ during Ramzan, we have it more often these days (He is Muslim. I don’t know what he wants to attain!) So, last evening we started our post-Tarawi feast with a shawarma each. We were sitting in a bustling restaurant in Kurla which had extended onto the footpath to make space for cauldrons of food and crowd of people. It was a glittering and maddening area with a few more such restaurants busy serving plates of meat and haleem. Even a fight broke out. I was absorbing everything like a sponge – the aroma of spices, the delightful sight of steam spewing out of massive handi-fulls of dal gosht, the fire roasting the stack of chicken for shawarmas, the chef pouring in mugs of malpua batter into hot oil, the piles of roasted-red chicken pakoda, haleem and khichda – and at that moment, I felt very much at home after a long time. It was the warmth in the air, the dynamic of serving the hungry, which connected every individual in that space. The ‘oneness’ of it all was most heartening.
We sampled the haleem and the khichda too; a little apprehensive at first as he does not enjoy either and I am very picky about the haleem I eat. Both of us were pleasantly surprised when we had polished off the plates in a few minutes amidst bits and pieces of expert criticism! The haleem was heavenly – smooth and textured, loaded with spices which could be singularly experienced. The khichda was a tad too spicy and gluten-y for me, but definitely delicious. I got my very first ‘Mutton Paya 101’ after that. While he made it sound extremely disgusting (with his very theatrical facial expressions exuding disgust) I was piqued. In front of us, baskets of fresh kidneys and livers were being chopped, mixed with spices and fried on a tawa. Fresh brains with blood running through the rivulets were lined up on a plate next to that. While I am not a fan of kidneys and livers, I enjoy the occasional brain. The cooking procedure of the Paya reminded me of the North Indian Nihari preparation which is a bone-meat-marrow stew cooked in distinct spices specifically for Sehri meals. The Nihari is very close to my heart, and the spice combination (which I used to pick up from Abdul chacha’s store in New Market’s masala patti or spice lane in Calcutta) had exalted even the simplest of mutton curries at home. The Nihari is an extremely tedious process, often slow cooked in a covered tandoor underground! Such intricate culinary processes always excite me.
Dessert offerings were another ride altogether. We skipped the gulab jamuns and shahi tukdas and firnis for the royal-sized malpuas and rabdi. One malpua could feedeth a family of four very easily! It was fried to perfection, soaked in sugar syrup (which was not sweet enough for me), and then lathered with rabdi. Alternating between soft and crunchy, it was a delight. We hoped that the rabdi was better as it was hardly sweet and lacked the sinful texture. That made us pick up a packed container of Noorani Dairy Farm’s rabdi for home. Best. Decision. Ever. We fought with our tiny plastic spoons, splattering rabdi everywhere, trying hard to scoop up those heavenly pieces of malai. Needless to say, after the first spoon, it lasted hardly a minute.
After all the Arsalan’s Biryani and kebabs that I chomp almost on a weekly basis, this was a fresh change and an extremely exciting gastronomical journey. This evening’s plan: More haleem, maybe paya, definitely rabdi and gulab jamun and firni!
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