As much as it is a time of fasting and prayer, Ramzan is also a time for families to come together and eat together. However, the idea of Ramzan foods has never been to cook fabulous meals just for yourselves or your loved ones. Food is cooked with the express intention of being shared with the extended family, friends, neighbours, and those who work for/with us; platters are sent to mosques for travellers and strangers to partake of whatever bounty has come your way. The past two years, Ramzan was spent in cruel isolation – the last one literally gasping for breath and the one before in lockdown.
Community eating, which is the essence of opening the fast, seemed to have gone out of our lives. This year, with the world cautiously righting itself and some semblance of normalcy being restored, raunaq (spirit) has returned to Ramzan foods.
Many old staples find their way back in during this month. First and foremost is Roohafza, the ultimate thirst quencher. Some Ramzan foods might not be spectacular but are cooked simply because we remember them being made in our childhood during this month, such as the simple dish of 'Kaale Chhole' made for iftaar. Tangy, packed with protein and fibre, it’s the perfect snack to perk up your taste buds in anticipation of the dinner that follows a light iftaar. Oddly enough, one never seems to make it after Ramzan.
The Simple 'Chane ki Daal'
Another uniquely iftaar dish is 'Chane ki Daal'. It seldom makes an appearance on our tables and dastarkhwans after Ramzan. Odder still, it has no real name and seems perfectly content to be known (to the best of my knowledge) as ‘Chane ki Daal’, with no fancy prefix or suffix.
While the versatile chana gives it body and bulk, its textures and flavours come from finely chopped tomatoes, green chillies, coriander (in my case, mint, because that has thrived while the coriander has obstinately refused to catch root in this heat) and onions – with generous sprinkles of amchoor, chaat masala, ground zeera and a squeeze of lemon.
Like the other iftaar staple, 'Kachalu', or fruit chaat, it should be made well ahead of the iftaar time so that the daal soaks in the flavours and becomes mushy, yet each grain remaining separate and intact. The kachalu, too, requires a fine balance of textures and flavours, the crunchiness of a grape offset by the softness of a banana or a pulpy guava. However, the crowning glory of the kachalu is the sendha namak that, along with a generous squeeze of lime juice, truly elevates it.
Some might hold the humble 'Dahi ki Phulki' to be a poor cousin of the 'Dahi barha' (or bara, as it’s pronounced with a softer ‘r’ by genteel begums in Uttar Pradesh, such as my Nasho Khala in Aligarh), but I think it’s a superior dish by virtue of its sheer simplicity. Yes, it doesn’t have the plump rotundness of the dahi bhalla or even the disc-like roundness of the barha, but in its coming together of many flavours, it is unsurpassed.
Then there are the unevenly shaped, none-too-elegant 'Besan Phulkis' (made from a slurry of besan, water, salt, chillies and a smidgeon of zeera) dunked in a watery yoghurt base spiked with salt, red chillies and crushed garlic (always, always crushed to release its aroma fully and not chopped), topped with a sprinkle of freshly roasted zeera ... can the fasting faithful ask for more?
A Metro Ride to Jama Masjid Is Also a Staple
The other Ramzan staple – on hold for the past two years and still in abeyance given the rising fresh COVID-19 cases and the talk of a dreaded fourth wave – is a metro ride to Jama Masjid just to eat Anmol Chicken and 'Babu Bhai ke Kebab'. These two hole-in-the-wall places far outshine the other biggies in the neighbourhood. Truth be told, though we also sneak in a quick visit to Karim’s on the pretext of getting some phirni packed for later, in reality, it’s just to sample their gorgeous crispy naan with a Shahjahani qorma.
There is something about this holy month that makes you remember the past more keenly. Nasho Khala mentioned above, for instance, pops up in my prayers with unfailing regularity – so do Naseem Khala and so many others who spread joy and cheer in our lives by virtue of being who they were. And because food is memory, one also remembers the many spectacular dishes these good ladies made, such as the divine Shahi Tukde that Naseem Khala could whip up at a moment’s notice with some stale bread and a tin of Milkmaid, or Nasho Khala’s Mooli ke Shami Kabab.
The Elegance of Gulatthi
Ramzan is also a time to cook and share old favourites, such as the Gulatthi. Not quite kheer nor a rabri but a coconutty marriage of the two, this is a dessert I have only ever had in Aligarh, that too at weddings. So, in my mind, it’s associated with nikah and walime ki dawaat, family and fun, women in ghararas and men in sherwanis.
A bit like the figures in Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, Gulatthi is frozen in my memory – forever fair, forever sweet, smelling of moist earth and rose water.
Seeing our enthusiasm for the Gulatthi, kind hosts invariably gave us some to carry back home to Delhi. Given their fragile contents, the pink topped clay matkis were transported with much tender care and consumed with great gusto post-haste.
The Gulatthi always ever came in tallish matkis, with Rani-pink kite paper wrapped around the mouth of the matki. The more “typical” wedding guests (to use a popular Aligarh expression) knew that the good stuff would settle at the bottom and needed to be fished out with long-handled tablespoons; we watched and learnt to scoop out the raisins, cashews and coconut pieces that had sunk to the milky depths and scrape the edges to release the earthy aroma of the clay jars.
Biryani vs Pulao: A Never-Ending Debate
Growing up, I don’t remember eating biryani too often; biryani was only ever eaten at weddings along with zarda. At home, it was always pulao – more often than not matar pulao, and sometimes with mutton, when it was called by its full and proper name, ‘yakhni pulao’. I don’t remember there ever being a chicken pulao, though.
The few times when biryani was made in our home, it was cooked by Sifat Chachi who was from Bhopal, and who pronounced it “biryaan”, with the “i” missing.
Moreover, the mathematical precision with which she made her signature dish made it a daunting task for the rest of us to attempt. And so, we lived our lives largely content with our easy-going pulao. That was till the Big Biryani Brouhaha hit Delhi and the gentle, muted pulao slunk into the shadows of our culinary consciousness.
My friend Sadia Dehlvi was fond of saying, “Maaf karna, tum UP walon ko khaana pakana nahi aata.” And we would resume our debate on the merits of “Dilli versus the rest of the world” and “pulao versus biryani”. Sadia was in a hurry and went away without concluding our debate. As for me, I like biryani, but I also like pulao. There’s a delicacy, a nuance, a gentleness to the pulao that is missing in the robust, full-bodied flavoursomeness of the biryani. The saunf – absent in the biryani – makes a light, aromatic whisper. The rice gets longer to cook and soak in the flavours of the yakhni broth. Yes, it isn’t biryani, but it isn’t half bad either. Though pretty good on its own, in this heat it goes well with a lauki ka raita tempered with zeera and garlic.
As I sit writing this column, I realise that we remember our loved ones, those who are no longer in our midst, in different ways – in prayer but also in remembering them with joy, in re-creating a part of their lives in ours, in cooking what they cooked and the way they cooked.