I have lived in Mumbai for a little over a quarter century and consider it one of the most lively, diverse and culturally rich cities in the world. Every month is marked by the celebration of a festival and this month was no different, with Muslims practicing a month of fasting from the end of June to the end of July. The end of the fasting is marked by the festival of Eid, which involves offering prayers at the mosque, visiting family and friends, serving sheer korma and other Muslim feasts, including meat or chicken biryani, gulab jamuns, and other desserts.
What the rest of us get to enjoy is the Ramzan-time snacks, sweets and meals cooked in the homes of Muslim neighbors and friends, the restaurants and most anticipated of all: the food vendors and pop-up stalls lining the eat streets of Mumbai. This week, I went on a foodie photo tour of Mohammed Ali Road located at Masjid Bunder, South Mumbai. Some of these delicacies are prepared only during Ramzan and a true-blue Mumbaikar would never miss the opportunity to visit the Ramzan food stalls spread across the city. The bylanes of Mohammed Ali Road are the most popular for the variety of food on display. Rightly the place is commonly referred to as ‘khau galli’ – eat street!
You have to be at Mohammed Ali Road to experience the chaos that it is, particularly during Ramzan. It’s a slice of life comprising color, sounds, smells and aromas, body heat, cloth textures and architectural surfaces, old buildings and new highrises, potholed roads and treacherous cable wires, and the chant of “come here, buy this, see what we have” on loop, every hawker’s sales pitch drowning out the next. I was away from Mumbai the last couple of years and the sudden onslaught of horns, sirens and people-talk was a sensory overload. But it soon faded into a white noise and I began taking it in, realizing that this is what makes the city so vibrant! It’s madness yes, but it’s a madness that is comfortable and familiar.
The food stalls pop-up only during Ramzan, but the place itself is a traditional market and features everything from cloth material to ready made garments, shoes, bags, perfumes, accessories, to crockery and plasticware. It’s a bargain hunter’s paradise and you will see people of all communities, as well as travelers, tourists and photographers thronging the place to get a feel of a typical bazaar.
We all live with certain culturally-imposed food habits and taboos, apart from that, we have our own inclinations towards certain cuisines and a total rejection of others. Soon after my graduation, I had turned vegan and had given up eating milk and dairy-based products, chicken, sea-food or meat preparations. It was an overnight snap decision, prompted by a cursory reading of Maneka Gandhi’s book on animal cruelty, and I couldn’t imagine consuming anything that remotely involved “harming” another species for my well-being.
Well, my tryst with veganism ended 6 years ago and I now consider an omnivore! It’s a term which describes someone (a species, in general) that can survive on different diets, including vegetable and animal-based food groups, and isn’t restricted to only one diet for survival. Omnivores are perfect foodies – we enjoy local, regional and international cuisines, are not fussy about the type of animal or plant we get to eat (including the various parts, from the tongue or tail, to the roots of a plant – I see some of my readers wrinkling their nose in distaste). Every meal served is an opportunity to taste, experiment and appreciate diversity in culture.
As a kid, my parents and I would travel 22 kms by train from the northern suburbs of the city to Masjid Bunder and shop for chinaware, baking items and cloth material. The place has not changed much in the last 30 years! With my food taboos placed neatly aside, I knew I was in for a treat at khau galli during my maiden Ramzan time visit. As soon as my companions and I entered the street, the aromas of charred meat, spices, ghee and fresh fruits welcomed us. It was intoxicating. We took it all in – the coal-flavored smoke, the sweet apple cider burnt wood, the saccharine sweet smell of sugar-dipped, deep fried dough balls (gulab jamuns), the sticky texture of the dates mixed with the scent of incense sticks placed over them, and the stench of raw meat and marinated poultry waiting to be grilled or deep fried.
The sweets and desserts far outnumber the main course and snacks at the Mohammed Ali Road stalls. Some of the sweets include malpua, gulab jamun, jalebi, mawa jalebi, rabri, phirni, motichur laddoos, halwas, barfis, and in the cool drinks section, you could find milkshakes of seasonal fruits, and fruit juices, apart from exotic stuff like dry fruits milkshake and the ever popular Falooda. Instead of relegating desserts to the last, we alternated between having spicy snacks, grilled meat and sweets one after the other so that we wouldn’t be left with a lingering aftertaste of either the masalas or face the aftermath of a sugar high. This strategy really works if you have a lot of food to consume within a short span of time.
What did I try at the Ramzan food stalls? How about cow tongue soup, goat brain gravy, roasted quail bird, and goat leg soup. These dishes were completely new for me. While you do get almost all of them at local Muslim restaurants, it was a delight to try these in the company of other first-timers. The sense of queasiness that we experienced before trying something out of our ordinary diet vanished when the juices and spices of the meats hit our tongue (no pun intended!). Among sweets, I loved the black currant malai (condensed milk) and the intensely sugary, hot and crispy mawa jalebi (a fun variation on the doughy soft gulab jamun). View: Recipe for Mawa Jalebi.
At the end of two days, we ended our food sojourn by downing Falooda at one of the city’s most famous restaurant, Badshah Juice Center (estd. 1905), in Crawford Market. A lot of the experience of enjoying food at the Ramzan stalls stems from being part of a group or crowd who are there to have a good time exclusively through food. Everyone is sweating buckets. There is not much space to walk or navigate from one stall to the next – it’s intense body crush. It can get claustrophobic! Yet, we are compelled to brave the crowd (and smelly bodies), the intermittent monsoon drizzle, the slushy roads, and the smell of raw meat for the sake of enjoying a lip smacking meal that is exclusively relegated to experiencing during Ramzan. Try: Recipe for Falooda.
The hallmark of Mohammed Ali Road are not its food stalls though. There are several mosques lining the intersections, each belonging to the various Muslim sects living in the locality (Shia, Khoja, Bori). The Minara Masjid is the most famous of these, with its colored stone work, painted wooden windows, stained glass, and facades decorated with fairy lights. These spaces are marked by a magical contemplative silence, with the men offering prayers and later breaking the fast with humility and containment: there’s no frenzy, no noise or talking, no rush to eat. It is time slowed down to the act of recognizing that you have triumphed over your hunger with only your will power aiding you.
The rest of us revelers are there for the purely sensual gastronomic experience of eating wholesome food. That’s the hallmark of foodie faith: appreciating a well-cooked meal for the joy it brings us.
Eid Mubarak! Happy Feasting! Let me know your favorite festival treats in your comments below!
Heartfelt thank you to Mayank Soni of Caribou Drift who organized the photowalk. Check out their Facebook page.