Chaotic is the operative word to go by if you ever find yourself lost in the lanes and bylanes of Colootola during Iftar. An unfailing melting pot, Calcutta has always been a place where differences in cultural narratives are not only embraced and celebrated but also shared, often over food. Thus, it comes as no surprise when thousands throng the Ramadan celebrations around Nakhoda Mosque, sharing tables and opinions as they wait for the siren to mark the end of the day’s fasting. Nobody asks you your religious or ethnic identity. Nobody asks if you are a believer or not. You join the locals around rickety makeshift tables, perspiring and praying for a cool draught of wind while sipping on glasses of milky kesari chai. All around you, in brightly lit shops people holler for the best bargain and owners of street food stalls hang skewers of marinated meat from hooks, arrange delicate rolls of lachha, stir cauldrons of haleem in preparation for the evening. Nobody can tell at what point this chaotic come-together floods the confines of a religious ritual to become a carnival, a celebration of life, under the summer skies of Calcutta.
Iftar in Zakaria Street is a joyous gathering where faith, life, and being are celebrated with friends, families, and strangers. The fast is broken by sharing morsels with the community before the muezzin begins his call to prayer and suddenly the clogged arteries of the city are flooded by the sound of the azaan. On my Ramadan Food Walk, this moment of breaking fast took me by surprise and humbled me. I had been jostling my way through the insanely crowded back-lanes of Colootola to find Bombay Tea House which is touted by many as one of the best places to find Calcutta haleem and beef chanp. It was so atrociously busy that evening that I did not notice that all around me, people were hastily arranging plates of fruits: dates, cubed watermelons, ripe orange papayas, bananas, and juicy mangoes till I stepped inside Bombay Tea House. On every table were plates heaped with fruits and dates. It suddenly dawned on me that at this moment, inside every eatery and on the sidewalks in and around Zakaria Street, men and women, commoner and elite, all were waiting patiently for Iftar to begin. Bombay Tea House was not serving its famed items yet. Instead, it was hosting the traditional Iftar for everybody present on the premises, be it employees, patrons, or passers-by.
A bit befuddled by this realization and unsure how my encroachment would be viewed after I had barged in unannounced at a revered routine, I was hesitating between asking the stoic man at the counter “bhaiya baad me aaun?” or just slipping away surreptitiously when I was apprehended by a small hand. A child, no older than the age of ten, was tugging me by my wrist and demanding I sit beside him. There was no place left around this table to sit, or around any of the other tables in Bombay Tea House but this was Iftar and the evening was just beginning to unfold.
A pair of plastic chairs appeared from the smoky belly of the kitchen. They were placed promptly in the aisle to accommodate my friend and me, and we were invited to this feast not as strangers, not as guests, but as equals. With us, at our table sat two elderly men and two children, one of whom had called me in. Our table had plates piled with fruits and dates, telebhajas made of finely sliced roundels of potatoes and brinjals, and lightly spiced boiled chanas (Bengal gram) and potatoes tossed in mustard oil: simple foods, unlike the curried beef or deep-fried chicken slathered in spices that we were here for, that does not shock your system as you break the fast after a long tiring day. Our hosts told us that the traditional way of breaking the Ramadan fast is with three dates and a sip of water because that is what the Prophet preferred. Scientifically speaking, dates are rich in sugar. Fasting can cause your blood glucose levels to drop and the sugar in dates and fruits can help restore it.
Once the siren shattered the patience, our tablemates took charge of easing us into the feast. “Khaiye na, sharmaiye maat,” they said as we hesitantly ate from the plates in front of us. Sharing food is perhaps the easiest way of seeing past our differences and that evening, inside Bombay Tea House, as we partook of Iftar each of us in that small room belonged to the same religion, that of Humanity. Sitting there and sharing from those plates of chana and dates and melons, I had almost forgotten what we were here for. This moment of inclusion felt essential to my understanding of religion and humanity. As the sound of prayer floating from the Nakhoda Masjid weaned off, the day’s order rapidly took centre stage again and our small Iftar, real for our Muslim friends and symbolic for us, came to an end. When our new friends got up and began to clean the tables, I realized that they were not other patrons waiting to order but workers and servers who toiled in the hotel. These were people who cheerfully welcomed confused and clueless strangers trying to make sense of all the surrounding chaos and shared with them their hard-earned food. We are living in times when certain political elements are deliberately inciting communal tensions to achieve their own ends. What they fail to see is the religion of sharing and empathy, of inclusion and honesty. That child that welcomed me, a Hindu by birth, to break a religious fast with him reminds me that perhaps there still is hope for humanity.
I ordered the house speciality and the servers brought us bowls of haleem garnished with coriander leaves. Haleem is a concoction of lentils, wheat or barley, and small chunks of meat slow-cooked for 6-7 hours to achieve a creamy stew-like consistency. The Calcutta haleem, which has undergone its own culinary evolution, is less decadent than its regally spiced royal cousin, the Hyderabadi Haleem. Haleem is in itself a complete meal, nutritious enough for the dietary needs of the fasting individual besides being supremely delicious.
The haleem at Bombay Tea House was promising. Spoonfuls of it, redolent with ghee, unfurled like liquid silk of my tongue and flooded my taste buds with flavourful wholesomeness. It intensified my hunger and I proceeded to order, in no particular order, plates of Beef Bhuna, Beef Chanp, Beef Seekh Kabab, a few ghee-laced parathas and a small bowl of that sinfully divine rice pudding, the firni. Fragrant with cinnamon, that tomato-based gravy slathering the beef bhuna was a revelation. Maintaining the nuances that differentiate traditional Mughlai dishes such as the Qorma, the Kaliya or the Pasinda is a dying art but the chefs at this dingy eatery are masters of their craft and my opinion was further reinforced as I took a bite out of the Chanp along with a piece of the supremely flaky laccha paratha. The Chanp, made of minced beef kneaded with ghee, is an excellent salan, be it with biriyani or bread. The garlicky seekh kababs are best eaten with some raw onion and a squeeze of lime. Dip them in the accompanying mint-coriander-yogurt chutney if you please. In moments like this, eating stops being a physiological need to replenish you after a full day of staying hungry. Instead, it becomes a celebration of senses, an ode to the marriage of artisanal craftsmanship that goes in the diligent replication of age-old recipes with the act of finding contentment through something as simple as having the next bite.
Bellies full, we bid goodbye to Bombay Hotel (the more popular name of this joint) and begin a celebratory jaunt down Zakaria Street. On the sidewalks, displayed in makeshift stalls, are rows and rows of bread, especially the Iftar-special bakarkhanis and the saffron-laced, mildly sweet sheermals. Other types have fillings such as desiccated coconut and dry fruits. Bread is a part of the traditional Iftar feast and here on Zakaria Street, they are baked right in front of your eyes in small tandoors. Recently, a French research concluded that the aroma of freshly baked bread makes one kinder to strangers. Perhaps that explains the conviviality? The bakers, faces glowing from the heat, flatten the dough, throw them so they cling to the inner walls of the tandoor, and extract them once done with a hooked skewer. Watching them repeat this sequence over and over again in rapid succession is hypnotising.
While discussing the best usage of the sheermal— dip it in kheer, or payesh—we pass the famous stalls of Taskeen and Dilli 6. Hundreds flocked like moths around their counters, demanding the Mahi Akbari (a much sought-after fish dish made of large cuts of katla fish that are marinated, then fried in front of your hungry eyes) and the Chicken Changezi (a mouth-watering, impeccably spiced dish of double fried chicken). Their enthusiasm had reached levels not uncommon for a rock concert. At both these locations, you must point to the cuts you would like and holler, in your loudest voice, the quantity in grams/kilograms. The counter guy, who probably is driven to the point of madness, will pick up the cut you point to, weigh it, and slice and dice it in bite-sized pieces to be fried. I had some Changezi packed to take home while my friend downed a glass of faluda, a cold dessert with strands of vermicelli soaked in sweetened, saffron flavoured milk. Often it will have a scoop of your favourite ice cream and a dash of rose syrup for good measure.
You can easily lose your way here. The trick is to follow the hungry crowd ahead of you tends and rely on it to lead you to rewarding experiences. I arrive in front of the Yaadgar Hotel, a name that literally means “worth remembering”. The rundown façade and shabby interiors do little to arouse my appetite but I follow the crowd, wait for a seat, and order a plate each of Beef Maghaz and Beef Paya. The maghaz, a personal favourite, has chunks of deep-fried brain curried in a rich gravy of onions and garlic. The bheja/maghaz pieces offer a delicate creaminess that complements the heat of the gravy. The paya is a different ball game altogether. Not for the faint of the heart, your plate will come with entire hoofs of a cow in a very light, almost soupy broth. The trotters do not contain any meat or muscle but is full of skin, cartilage, and sinewy, tendinous tissues that have a chewy, gelatinous texture. The paya is definitely an acquired taste but enriched with all the good stuff from the bones, the broth is aromatic and a delicious pleasure.
Back on the road again, we pass stalls selling glasses of ruby-red Rooh-afza and stop at various stalls to taste kebabs: malai kebab, reshmi kebab, tikka kebab, the ostentatiously named pyare kebab (Pyare means the lovely) on our way to Adam’s Kebab Stall in Phears Lane. Visiting this institution is akin to a pilgrimage for all the food enthusiasts of the city for it is one of the rare places to serve that famous Sutli/Suta Kebabs. Minced beef is mixed with masala and dal (boiled gram), wrapped around a skewer, tied with a thread soaked in water, and grilled on an open charcoal flame. The thread or the suta helps to hold the meat in place as it is ground so fine it tends to fall off the skewer otherwise. The thread is removed and the crumbled kebab is served with raw onions, green chillies, and a wedge of lime. While the Suta Kebab is their speciality, I ordered some Kheeri Kebabs too. Made from the cow udders, this is another delicacy that holds a special place in the hearts of those in the know. The kheeri kababs are truly melt-in-the-mouth. It is impossible to describe their texture except by calling it heavenly.
The crowds were thinning and some of the stalls were downing shutters and I wanted to make a last stop to buy some desserts for home. We stopped at Haji Liyaqat Sweets to grab some Dry Fruit Halwa. Rich, creamy, aromatic, and soaked in ghee, this halwa is a meal in itself. They were also selling gajar ka halwa, suji halwa and mawa based sweets. Outside on the sidewalk, milk-shakes flavoured with pistachios and saffron were selling like hot cakes. A little snooping around could also lead you to Mango or Strawberry Lassis, Thari Kanji (a semolina and milk based dish flavoured with nuts), Sweet Vermicelli served with cream or milk (extremely popular and known as laccha), ghee roasted dates, and the famous Shahi Tukra, butter-fried bread soaked in a creamy kheer and garnished with nuts and raisins. The possibilities are endless.
Walking home that evening, while recounting the experiences of the night inside my head I feel humbled. We had spent another hour in Bombay Tea House, chatting and eating with much gusto after the prayers of Maghrib got over. Later, we had walked along the length and breadth of Colootola, along Zakaria Street and Phears Lane, stuffing our faces with Iftar-special delicacies. It was truly a gastronomical experience but what keeps on shining bright in this food-fueled nebula is the remembrance of that simple invitation. It was true to the spirit of Iftar where religious and social differences do not matter and all wait to break the fast as equals. At the end of the day, this is what religion should always be about: a medium that fosters harmony and brotherhood despite differences. And if that can be accomplished over a table filled with haleem, bhunas, kebabs, kheeris, faludas then yes, Iftar is my festival too.