Over the last month, the narrow bylanes of Delhi’s Jama Masjid have been saturated with sights and sounds of milk bubbling in vats, the sizzle of skewered meats and the soporific cloying of chashni. As thousands of adherents streamed out of the main mosque to break their fast, they were joined by the curious and the hungry, caste and religion no bar. While most eateries here such as Al Jawahar and Aslam’s kept their regular hours, the area’s focal point, Karim’s, remained open until the wee hours of the morning through the month, ladling out sehri in the form of piping hot paya and nihari. As the fasting is left behind and the feasting begins, street vendors hawk a kaleidoscopic array of foods from the au naturel of dates, sliced fruits, and jamun to the heavily embellished whole chicken doused in crackling butter and fried vermicelli in bewildering shape. Flashing orange jalebis clamour for attention among displays of more sober hued mutton samosa and fat-slathered sheermal.
In Mumbai, the gastronomical pleasures offered to both the pious and the plain are at Mohammad Ali Road and other areas such as Mahim, Kurla and Govandi. “When it comes to the Muslim community, they prefer to break their fast at a more private set up. So it is actually people from other communities who often come by. For instance, the kebab items are very popular with the Catholic community,” says Sami Suvanur, who handles the brand marketing at deGustibus Hospitality Pvt Ltd that runs Neel, which specialises in Nawabi cuisine and is holding a month-long Ramadan festival at both of its outlets in Mumbai. “People are often seen sharing the menu and photos of various dishes on Twitter and Instagram,” he says.
Kalyan Karmarkar who runs a popular food blog, http://www.finelychopped.com, believes that the city has always been interested in this cuisine.
“People plan annual visits to Minara Masjid like they would to Lalbaghcha Raja during Ganesh Chaturthi,” he says. Karmarkar would also organise Ramadan walks for those interested in trying out the different kinds of traditional delicacies such as malpua, phirni and baara handi, that are available only during the festival.
In Lucknow, a city with a rich Muslim legacy and even richer kebabs, eateries make elaborate arrangements for the festival, at times even offering free food to all. The celebrated Tunday Kababi even offered free Iftar thalis at its Aminabad establishment as did Tandoor restaurant at Nakkhas in Chowk area and Mubeen Restaurant at Akbari Gate. This generosity even plays out in the markets.
But in Kolkata, while streets of Muslim-dominated areas like Zakaria Street are full of stalls selling haleem, chana masala, chops and cut fruits, the business districts of Dalhousie and Rajarhat hardly have any eating options. “If you happen to be a Muslim, you will have to travel to Muslim-dominated areas to find eating options. Moreover, Kolkata, has a profusion of Chinese eateries which do not offer halal meat, which means most Muslims choose not to visit them during their holy month,” says Poorna Banerjee, a Kolkata-based food blogger.
At the other end of the scale, five-star and fine-dining restaurants across the country have taken to showcasing special menus during the festival. “Some Muslim guests at our hotel would call up the restaurant and ask if something’s available for Iftar. That was over seven years ago. Since then, we’ve been offering Iftar meals,” says G M Qureshi, Masterchef, Dum Pukht, ITC-Maurya in Delhi. At Jyran, Sofitel Mumbai’s fine-dining restaurant that specialises in cuisine from the North Western frontier, the kitchen is buzzing with activity. The restaurant will be offering staple dishes such as sheer khurma, biryani, seekh kebabs along with specialties and lesser known dishes such as khurshi miyaan — eggs filled with lamb mince and deep fried and haleem, a meat and wheat preparation, until the month end.
However widespread these celebrations may be across the country, the one feature that stands out is the almost non-participation of mid-segment restaurants. Iftari spreads were either done by five-star hotels or relegated to budget eateries in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods. Ajay Chopra, Executive Chef at the Westin Garden City in Mumbai, explains, “It is the nature of large hotels to entertain a huge number of guests, from different places and faiths. But, there is an undeniable charm in going to street-hawkers outside mosques and gorging on their food while soaking in the surroundings. So people who want a dash of authenticity along with their food are happy to flock to the stalls. Thus, mid-scale restaurants usually don’t participate in Eid offerings as there is no demand for it in that segment, with the average consumer content to eat off the street and niche clients being taken care of by five-stars restaurants.”
With inputs from Shantanu David, Irena Akbar, Meenakshi Iyer, Premankur Biswas, Faisal Fareed and Rushil Dutta.