“Sans divide, sans judgement…”
Eid Mubarak to all of you. I hope you and your families had a blessed month and a lovely time yesterday. This is one of my favourite times of the year along with Durga Pujo and Christmas. During Ramzaan, there is a wonderful oscillation between abstinence and gluttony. I have been fasting for seven years now. Yes, I have no idea how someone like me, readily gives up on the pleasures of the tongue for a whole month. And it does get tough, but the sense of fulfillment and compassion compensates. You feel a certain kinship, a warmth, a sense of brotherhood…you feel a sense of equality and blurring of lines, breaking of walls and a gradual obliteration of divides. When you wash your hands and feet with strangers, sit down in a group in front of a large plate of food, you realize the true origin of species. This is how God (or a massive burst of energy, or whoever you believe in) created men and women – sans divide, sans judgement, sans prejudice.
I am picky and particular about what I eat. I would have used the word ‘very’ with a capital V if we journalists were allowed to do so. But four to five times a month, for the last seven years, I have broken my fast at different mosques around the country with different people I shall never meet again. I remember one particular evening. I was at the Santacruz mosque in Mumbai and was waiting for a rickshaw to take me home after Iftar and prayers. One guy, who had ate with me in the same group, walked out with me. We commented on the rains, and then, while I was waving at rickshaws to stop, he went to his rickshaw parked close by, revved it, and brought it to a halt in front of me. Just like rickshaws do when you holler for them. I smiled and politely asked, “Andheri chalenge?’ He smiled and replied, “Aiyye, baithiye.” We chatted the whole way home about his family and kids.
Why are we polite only to people we know? And secondly, is hygiene only a construct of the mind? The second question always troubles me.
“The dirtier the phuchka, the tastier the phuchka…”
Most of my favourite snacks are street food. Bengalis adore the phuchka (golgappa, pani puri, pani ke bataashe – call it whatever you want. But please don’t tell me any of that is better than phuchka, churmur and doi phuchka. I’m not buying that) which are served by vendors off wicker stands at street corners or around local parks and gardens. Phuchka connoisseurs will let you know specifically which guy to have it from. ‘His tamarind water is the best’ or ‘he makes a perfectly balanced aloo maakha’. Most vendors know the preferences of their regulars and finish off with other customers to get the spices and the flavours just right for them. But, imagine having phuchka by the street, with all the condiments laying uncovered, flies hovering around, the heavens know where that handi of water has arrived from – and then, imagine, you see the vendor’s hands squishing the potatoes, seasoning the mixture, dunking his hand into the handi of flavoured water to give it a swirl now and then, squeezing a lemon, cracking every phuchka with his thumb, pushing some mixture into it, and then dipping it into that handi…over and over and over again for every single customer. There is rain and heat, there is sweat and itching (you know where and where), there are pee breaks, maybe loo breaks, maybe an adamant wedgie, a pus-filled boil…you look at his fingernails, dark under their edges, caked in potato mash and masala…
And for some reason, all of this has not put generations of Bengalis off phuchkas. I remember a quote by Sabyasachi Mukherjee years back – The more unhygienic the vendor is, the tastier the phuchka will be. I kind of want to agree with him. I have tried places which use mineral water only and gourmet restaurants which use organic and healthy ingredients but they have been no fun at all. Theirs do not taste the way Kapil bhai’s does. Kapil bhai is really close to my family. He has been our phuchka guy for over a decade now. Kapil bhai gives me an added serving of churmur for free. No wonder I love him!
But that is the exact dilemma one faces when you land up in Md. Ali road or Kurla during Ramzaan. What if I really screw up my tummy? And the monsoons don’t help either. Everything is wet-squishy-slimy-sweaty-musty-damp-dank-yuck. And the whole thought of eating off the street during this season is not appetizing at all. But can the spread really make up for it? Is it really worth the effort?
I shall digress here, to discuss something very important. Yes, I used ‘very’. Grammar is not more important than what I am about to discuss. Nothing is.
“Non-vegetarianism is in danger”
I, surprisingly, have quite a few vegetarian friends. And, surprisingly, they are still vegetarian (for all those who accuse me of being a dominating arse, here’s proof I ain’t that bitch!). And while, I do enjoy vegetarian cuisine – because Bengali cuisine has plenty of vegetarian options and my Mum always stresses on a high-fibre diet – I am a true-blue carnivore. I even have cannibalistic instincts. I day dream of having a chunky slice of human thigh, braised or grilled to a good medium-rare…There I go again. And while, I am not one to get into propaganda, we carnivores are in danger these days. We are attacked by heart doctors, the PETA guys, self-confessed animal rights activists, vegans and E.Coli survivors. There is this sudden mania to take the meat off the heat. But before I present my case, please keep two factors in mind – a) moderation is always the healthy way to eat and b) if you’re allergic to something, stay away from it, bozo!
There is a reason why the early man hunted. Plant protein cannot substitute for animal protein. Vegetarian health freaks will condone that even though it is possible to create a vegetarian protein-rich diet, it would just be easier to include animal protein. Hence, nutrition is a crucial reason. Eggs are rich in protein and healthy carbs, fish are lean sources of protein, like chicken, and are also rich in fatty and amino acids and red meat, when cooked healthily, is the heartiest (yes, it’s a jibe at you cardiac crusaders) protein+carb+healthy fat combo you can include in a meal.
Secondly, please understand the concept of breeding for specific reasons. Early man understood which meat to eat and which to train for races. We don’t eat horses and watch cows run at race courses, now do we? We don’t eat dogs and domesticate pigs (allow exceptions please). Goat, lamb, chicken, cow and pig are primary meat sources all around the globe. Along with fish and selected seafood, of course. There are the occasional turkey and quail, but that’s just about it. But, one of the endangered animals is the Tiger. Another endangered animal is the one-horned rhino. If you check the endangered and extinct species list, none of them have been polished off by consumption. Whatever man eats, man breeds. What you should be fighting for are rehabilitation of injured wild animals, more forest reservation, maintenance of sanctuaries, artificial breeding and other practices that will help improve their numbers.
Then, there is the humanitarian angle of killing another living being. Now this one, I agree, is the most difficult to counter. Yes, I agree that killing any other living being is a cruel act. And yes, if you are the type who keeps tab of sins committed, we have too many stacked up against us. Like the tiger kills a deer, the elephant uproots trees, man has been designed to choose what he wants to consume.
“So, getting back to Md. Ali road…”
There’s something my Mum says all the time. If you don’t enjoy your meal, it will have an adverse effect on your body. Most of the times one falls ill because you are too worried about what you have eaten and you believe that it wasn’t healthy for you. Now, I don’t mean that hygiene is not important. But trust your body’s immunity. And remember those common tricks to keep germs at bay. Eat everything hot. Do not eat stale fried snacks and confectioneries. Make sure desserts are as fresh as possible or are made in front of you. And lastly, eat at the most crowded stalls and shops.
I did visit Kurla a couple of times this Ramzaan for my usual fill of haleem and khichda. For a detailed understanding of the two, please read this post from last year. Mughal Flavours at Kurla did not disappoint. And surprisingly, even after a year, the flavours remained the same.
I visited Bohri Mohalla and Minara Masjid twice this year. While the first one was rushed and not satisfying at all, I enjoyed a leisurely food walk with some friends the second time round. It was the last Friday before Eid and the Minara Masjid galli was packed with hungry groups, chaining up one behind the other, to swerve through the crowd without getting lost. We actually managed to find a table under a makeshift extension of Modern restaurant and hungrily placed our order. Chicken boti fry, kaleji masala, bheja masala, chicken tawa masala and rumali rotis. Service was swift and no-frills. The rumali rotis were manna from heaven. Fresh off the semi-circular tandoor, they were soft as cream, royally sized, not-too-thin and tore effortlessly. The boti fry was what it was supposed to be – a munch fest that you nibble on between conversations. This batter is unique to Mumbai and I am yet to find its origins and ingredients. It has a Chinese-y twist to it and nowhere else in India or Pakistan do you find this taste. The bheja was a winner for me. I love brain. Period. And while some places cook it into a smooth spicy mash, this restaurant retained a scramble-like texture which beautifully complimented the spicy gravy. There was a certain ‘melt in the mouth’ moment which, along with the roti, was, well, quite a moment. I am not a fan of liver but I must admit that I didn’t mind the gravy much. It’s something about the texture of liver, I guess. I don’t mind it when it is keema-ed though. The chicken tawa masala was nothing out of the ordinary and I’ve had better.
We started walking again, satisfied but thirsty. The crowd grew more suffocating as the lane grew narrower. Shops selling skull caps and keffiyahs had crawled onto the lane, brightly lit ice cream carts and makeshift shawarma stalls lined the sides too. Beggars with tumblers filled with smoking incense elbowed through, groups of knee-height urchins stamped on your feet as they tried to reach the ice-cream guy, chortling bunches of gaudily dressed girls shared a plate of kulfi between them, raucous young men hooted and whistled and wolf-called to make way, burkha-clad aunties asked them to shut up…we walked through all the madness that this one alley, stuffed to the brim with epicurean pleasures, was producing.
A while later, we stopped at a cart filled with meat pieces on seekhs, happily sizzling over a coal fire. A cauldron bubbled on a low fire by the side. We asked for mutton and beef rolls and khichda. The rolls were to die for. Perfectly spiced, open-grilled, crumbled meat stuffed into a tawa-fried paratha wrap (ends tucked in like a spring roll to minimize mess – loved that), cut into swiss roll-like circles and served with green chutney. The meat was flavoursome and delectable. The khichda was piping hot, served with generous doses of lemon and caramelized onions. Well, it wasn’t as amazing as Mughal Flavours in Kurla but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The cereals and grains had blended well and there were chunky pieces of meat. It is the perfect comfort food. And nothing can taste bad if you have sweet fried onions on top of it.
Talking of sweet, we needed dessert after this. ASAP. So, after some disastrous gulab jamuns at some random shop (one of my pals wanted an instant sugar high to get in the mood. Don’t ask me why. I have weird friends), we landed up at Suleman. Our list of debauchery here was long – rasgullas, gulab jamuns, kala jamuns, doodhi halwa, rabdi, meetha boondi, chiku firni, kesar firni…no, we did not hog on aflatoons. Because –
We wanted mawa jalebis. Especially Burhanpur’s mawa jalebis. They are hot crispy and sticky bites of unadulterated pleasure served on a sheet of newspaper. I adore this lack of refinement, this ignoring of adornment. They are probably the best mawa jalebis you’ll have in this whole world. I can vouch for that. We washed all of this down with glasses of apple and mango juice.
A short walk later we were at Bohri Mohalla’s Tawakkal Sweets area. It was almost 2 am and things looked dim and drowsy there. We stopped at one of the stalls and asked for kaleji and beef rolls but what was served was absolutely abysmal. That was disappointing and we thought it was best to put our experimenting to rest. I could go back for that bheja masala and those amazing mawa jalebis. This year, I didn’t find the chance or company to enjoy some paya. That makes me sad, you know. No, I’m not a nalli fan but I love nihari stews. I should write a detailed post on these three complex dishes.
Have a fantastic year ahead. Eid Mubarak.
Photo courtesy: Google Images