When I think about the food of Ramzan, a lot comes to my mind - deghs of sizzling khichda, biryani, bubbling-hot plates of paya, unctuous baida rotis, nihari, butter-soft seekh served with chutney. And of course, clay pots brimming with phirni, golden discs of malpua, saffron-spiked kheer. I think about a bowl of seviyan, soaked in milk and scattered over with toasted nuts and I think there is perhaps no better way to break a fast than this.
But my dear Bohri friend, M, firmly sticks a pin into my fantasy. "When we break our fast, it is always with a date," she admonishes me firmly. Instead, she tells me that although "some people have malpuas and phirni during Ramzan, this is not our (the Bohri) way. Instead, we have gol nu paani (jaggery with lemon and water), and grated doodhi cooked with milk and sugar."
Be that as it may, I cannot forget about the countless sweet treats that have assailed my stomach each Ramzan. In fact, I have scarcely let one Ramzan pass me by without a saunter down Muhammad Ali Road and Bohri Mohalla during Iftar time. And once in Bohri Mohalla, it is impossible for me to leave without my customary stop at Tawakkal Sweets, the granddaddy of Bohri Mohalla sweetmeat stores. Tawakkal Sweets is over half a century old but the quality of its sweetmeats has not once wavered. The Ramzan specialities here are the malpuas, phirnis and the balushahi.
The massive malpuas are prepared only during the holy month of Ramzan and are amongst the best I have ever eaten - plucked from sizzling hot oil, they are crisp and just the right amount of sweet, especially when served with their traditional accompaniment of rabdi or cream. Vegetarians who would otherwise be deprived of Bohri Mohalla's vast swathe of non-veg dishes can order Tawakkal's eggless malpuas. Or they can try the snowy phirni, another sweet dish offered exclusively during Ramzan - it comes in classic, kesar and mango flavours. The pale phirni is rich, creamy and smooth rice porridge served in a small earthen pot.
Elsewhere in Bohri Mohalla stands J J Jalebi, famous for its burnt umber-hued mawa jalebis and plethora of malpuas. These include dry fruit, plain, chocolate, rabdi and various fruit flavours. Unlike Tawakkal Sweets though, J J provides malpuas all year round (whew). The mawa jalebis gave me perhaps the most powerful sugar hit I have enjoyed in a while. These snaky spirals of deep-fried dough are far more menacing looking than their sunny orange counterparts, because of their dark colour and chewy texture, but are absolutely sublime. It is said that movie stars Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan are known to visit this shop. Lovers of the regular jalebi should saunter over to Noor Sweets and wait for the jalebiwala to make them fresh - hot, crunchy and mildly sweet. I can easily polish off a box on my own.
At Suleman Mithaiwala, a sweet shop on Muhammad Ali Road that "makes sweets fit for kings", I am always drawn to its Aflatoon - a glorious sweet made of a mixture of mawa, eggs, rawa, sugar, dry fruits and drenched in ghee. Suleman offers a range of Aflatoon products and it is what they are most famous for, but you can purchase a wide range of mithai here - burfi, malai puffs, sohan papdi, anjeer pak and others. You can also buy their glorious shahi tukra, which is of course bread that has been fried in ghee, soaked in milk or sugar syrup, drowned in rabdi, and then flecked with nuts and delicate flakes of varq.
One Ramzan evening, while loitering around the Mohalla's congested lanes, my friend and I came upon a most curious sweet called the sandan or sandal. I was told by the stall owner that he makes this sweet, rather laboriously, only during Ramzan time. It looks rather like an idli, light, fluffy, fermented and steamed. But unlike the idli, it is made from a mixture of rice, coconut, sugar and mawa, topped with a daub of cream and a sprinkle of nuts. It is a delightful dish - comforting and creamy, with a chiffon-light touch of sweetness. Suffice it to say that I have never yet been able to satisfactorily recreate it at home. If anybody has a successful recipe available, I would really appreciate their pointing me to it.
I also make sure to visit the 75 year-old-Fakhri Sweets, which is named for Fakhruddin Shaheed, a Bohra saint who was martyred in Rajasthan. Here I sweeten my mouth with salam pak, a mithai invented by the shop owner. It is made with mawa and gond, and soaked in ghee. At Fakhri Sweets, I also nibble on the flaky malai na khaja and sutarfeni (which I am told is sometimes eaten at seheri, the pre-dawn meal before the daily fast begins). In fact, both sutarfeni and malai na khaja are beloved of both Bohris and Parsis.
This is not really a Ramzan mithai (thankfully it is available through the year), but no visit to Bohri Mohalla can be considered complete until I have visited Taj ice creams. Taj Ice creams has been operating for over 125 years. From its unprepossessing interiors, the owner and his nephew hand out the creamiest ice creams made from full-cream milk that has been hand-churned over a mixture of salt and ice; the fruit flavours are the best and my favourites are the mango, the lichi and the chikoo. These ice creams are made throughout the year, but there is something extra special about sitting inside the shop at Iftar, biting into their icy hearts, while outside the street clears to answer the clarion call of the muezzin.
About the author: Meher Mirza is an independent writer and editor, with a focus on food and travel. Formerly with BBC Good Food India, she loves anime, animals and artsy things but also comics, technology and death metal.
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