The holy month of Ramadan is coming to an end. A month where my social media timelines have been flooded with pictures of delicious kebabs and hearty haleems. Though I am not a Muslim, Ramzan, as Ramadan is referred to in Urdu, has featured consistently in my life ever since I moved to Mumbai from Kolkata, 20 years back.
When I was new to the city, I read newspaper articles about the food stalls that are set up in Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road during Ramzan. Always game for new culinary experiences, I convinced some of my colleagues from the market research agency where I worked to join me in an eating expedition to Mohammed Ali Road. Our group consisted of people from different parts of the country and from different religions — Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis.
When we got off from a kaali-peeli taxi at the start of Mohammed Ali Road, we were welcomed by a sight that was nothing like what any of us had ever seen before. At the head of the road was a mosque, the Minara Masjid, which was brightly lit up with fairy lights. We walked down a by-lane which was packed with food stalls on each side. Hanging from stands at these stalls were various types of meat, ready to be grilled as kebabs. There were sweet shops too, selling sweets such as aflatoons and badam paks, which were unfamiliar to me, and huge frisbee like dishes made with what seemed like a million eggs. These, we found out, were called malpuas — very different from the much-thinner, smaller and fully vegetarian malpuas that I had grown up on in Kolkata and had later eaten in Rajasthan and Punjab. We ate a lot that night at Mohammed Ali Road. The food was not very cheap and possibly not epiphanic as I do not remember much about it. It was way past midnight when we headed back home, celebrating our newly found independence as all of us had just moved out of our homes around that time to lay claims to adulthood.
What I do remember from that evening was the festive energy on the road. It was packed with people, many in festive finery. Bright lights had lit up the area. There were people of all classes and gender, walking down the streets, stopping at the food stalls to eat. There were makeshift shacks, where clothes and shoes and trinkets were being sold, where many women stopped with their children while their husbands waited impatiently. Many queued up and went into the mosques for prayers. Many had just come to eat and enjoy the revelry; they were not Muslims.
The buzz and electricity reminded me of the packed lanes of Ekdalia Park and Jodhpur Park and Mohammed Ali Park during Durga Pujos back home in Kolkata.
Going to Mohammed Ali Road with my work colleagues became a ritual for me every year even though I changed jobs over the years.
As the years went by, the city of Mumbai became home to me. I lived for a while in a colony in Bandra where I had Muslim neighbours. Come Eid, Farida aunty from next door would come over to give us some of the chicken biryani and sheer qurma (seviya) that she had made for her family.
On the professional front, I moved out of market research, the industry that had got me to Mumbai in the first place, to explore a career as a food writer. As I became more familiar with the city and its food, I began to conduct food walks.
The walks that I conducted during Ramzan were most popular and I often had to conduct more than one in a month. Instead of Mohammed Ali Road, I took people to Bohri Mohalla close-by, for the khiri and kofta kebabs at Haji Tikka, the gurda masala and baida tava masalas at the India Hotel, the slow-cooked marvels of the bara handi at Surti and Vali Bhai Payawalah, the freshly-fried jalebi at Noor Sweets, the malpua with rabri at Shabbir Bhai’s Tawakkal Sweets and the freshly-churned sancha ice creams at the 130 year old Taj ice creams — culinary marvels revealed to me by kind and experienced Mumbai hands such as Kurush Dalal.
In my groups, would be a mix of people. Western expats and visitors and people from all over India who had come to work in corporate Mumbai and wanted to explore their adopted city. There were folks who had grown up in Mumbai and had moved to the suburbs and were no longer in touch with the older parts of Mumbai. The groups consisted of people from all communities, religions, cultures and countries, people united with a desire to eat well, meet new people and to get to experience a side of the city they were not familiar with and we were all welcomed warmly by the folks at Bohri Mohalla who were happy to see us have a good time. When we sat down to eat at the food stalls of Mumbai during Ramzan, no one asked us about our religion or background just as no one did at the queues which formed at the Bengali Durga Pujos of Mumbai when bhog is served or at the langars at the Sikh gurudwaras here, proving once again that there is no unifier like food.