As a child, I had heard a few stories about Bhendi Bazaar from friends and family. I had heard of people from all corners of the city thronging to the locality to enjoy food and drink that you would only get during Ramadan. But I had never really found the right opportunity to visit. The bazaar was also known to be rather cramped and crowded, especially a decade or so ago. Accommodations were usually based on the chawl system, and much of the infrastructure had not aged well. However, this integral part of old Bombay remained as vibrant as ever, and I looked forward to discovering it for myself. Turns out, much has changed over the years, and fortunately, for the better.
The Feast Begins at Shabbir's Tawakkal Sweets
The weather was unusually cool for the beginning of April. Since it was Ramadan, the entire street was illuminated with hanging lights over shop awnings and across alleys. It was around 7 pm, and devotees were just beginning to break their fast. We seated ourselves on tables in a small courtyard situated a few feet away from our first stop, Shabbir's Tawakkal Sweets - an outlet that dates all the way back to 1953. Their original shop had to be given up for redevelopment, but their new address did not seem any less abuzz. It was time to let the feasting commence. I decided to start with a favourite.
I had always been a fan of baida roti and couldn't help being curious about how they made it here. The roti arrived cut into six pieces, and I could already spy the delicious stuffing inside. I dipped a piece into the refreshing mint chutney served on the side and took a bite. How had I ever liked any other version? The outside was perfectly crisp, and the egg did not have an overpowering flavour. Inside, there was juicy chicken mince, spices, onion, and, of course, pieces of green chillies whose presence you could not miss. We also tried the cheese baida roti, which looked straight out of a foodie's dream, with bubbly cheese oozing out. To me, the cheese felt rather out of place in this beloved traditional dish. However, those around me were left enchanted by it.
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Among the appetisers, we also tasted the chicken seekh kebab and mutton seekh kebab. Moayyad Mithaiwala, the proprietor, explained that some of the delicacies were prepared solely for iftar. However, there were many treats - sweet and savoury - available year-round too. The kebabs were one such dish, and after tasting them, I was glad of the fact. I already began planning my next visit and mentally making a list of people who had to try these kebabs. They were cooked to perfection (I was too busy savouring them to come up with more poetic descriptions).
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Delectable Main Course: Nalli Nihari, Khichda, and Sheermal
For the main course, we had the opportunity to try Nalli Nihari - a slow-cooked mutton stew that should be the definition of aromatic. This stew is one of the delicacies that are prepared solely for iftar at this particular restaurant. Nalli Nihari was originally eaten in the mornings. In fact, the word Nihari is said to come from the Arabic word Nahar, meaning early morning. The stew is typically cooked for around 4-5 hours, resulting in wonderfully tender pieces of meat and a curry bursting with flavour. We scooped the Nihari with some soft sheermal, a type of flatbread. We also relished khichda, a mutton preparation of rice and lentils. It was interesting to note that the gravy was white in colour. Before this, khichda to me had been synonymous with a thick dal-like preparation that contained turmeric and was yellowish in colour - I had never tried any other. The Bohra-style khichda was equally, if not more, delicious.
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Preserving the Essence of Old Bombay
Our hosts ushered us through a street flanked by contrasting structures. On one side, an aesthetically designed skyscraper loomed high above our heads. Opposite, we observed buildings still under construction - all a part of the massive redevelopment project undertaken by Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT). The newer structures mirrored certain traditional aesthetics and architectural styles. This was intentional, explained Murtaza Sadriwala, an official from SBUT. They believed it was important to retain some of the essence of the original buildings as well as the spirit of the communities that thrived there - all while enhancing the overall appearance of the neighbourhood. This did not just apply to residences but also to the many shops, restaurants, and other outlets that were an integral part of the fabric of the bazaar.
Bara Handi - A Must-Try for Meat Lovers
Our next stop was Fakhri's Farsan Mart, where we sampled patra biryani, a local delicacy made using arbi leaves and pieces of mutton. Although called "biryani," we were amused to find that this dish contained no rice. We also tasted "Dubai mix," an eclectic combination of chivda and farsan, including cornflakes, groundnuts, ghatiya, moong, and much more. We were pleasantly surprised at its yumminess. Next, we peeked into the making of Bara Handi right opposite. The name refers to 12 vessels containing different types of slow-cooked meat gravies, eaten separately or mixed together in different ways. Unfortunately, we were too stuffed to do it much justice. We all wanted to save space for dessert - which turned out to be a great decision.
Sweet Endings at Taj Ice Cream
We made our way to Taj Ice Cream down the road, a shop specializing in sancha or hand-churned ice cream. It is said to have been around since 1887! To make their signature ice cream, milk is added to a copper sancha along with the fruits or flavourings of choice and then churned for around 3 hours. We tasted the sitaphal (custard apple) flavour, which retained many pieces of the fleshy fruit - much to our delight. We also enjoyed the mixed fruit flavour, which was pink in colour and a bit tart in taste. Other favourites among the group were guava and mango. One of the best parts was that the ice cream was cold, but not so chilly as to give you a brain freeze. It was also not overly sweet, a welcome change in today's world of sugar-loaded desserts.
Imam Sharbatwala: A Refreshing Treat for the Taste Buds
After all this indulgence, we only had space left for some refreshing sharbat. So, we headed to Imam Sharbatwala to try their famous offerings. We were served a sweet and yellowish milk-based drink with pieces of watermelon. I could detect a nutty flavour, but the other ingredients seemed to be something of a secret. On asking, the vendor diplomatically evaded our question. It felt only right that some treats retain their mystery!
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A Promise to Return for More Delicacies
As we headed back to where we started, we noticed that crowds of devotees had indeed descended in full force for iftar. Many were dressed in pieces of traditional clothing, implying that they belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community. But we could also spot people from other communities who had come to simply enjoy the delicacies on offer. To me, it was as good an example of multicultural harmony as any. I had always believed in the uniting power of food and this seemed like proof enough. I look forward to returning to this fascinating corner of a city I love so much. As I walked to my cab, I also eyed the malpuas, kunafas, kulfis, and faloodas that I did not have the space to try. Next time, I promised myself.
About Toshita SahniToshita is fuelled by wordplay, wanderlust, wonderment and Alliteration. When she is not blissfully contemplating her next meal, she enjoys reading novels and roaming around the city.