This is my first article of the ‘Ramzan Special’ series and I hope I will keep on gathering more experience which I will keep on sharing with you all in the coming days (or maybe years) and hence this particular series will keep on continuing. So, let’s get started.
I am not sure about everyone, but this is the special time of the year for which I wait for quite eagerly. That special reason has to be haleem, but more than that I love the immense passion, values, sacrifices and rewards this season has to offer. This holy month of Ramzan (or Ramadan) according to the Islam calendar is the ninth month and marks the month long fasting that is followed by Eid-ul-Fitr. It is believed that whatever the devotees pray for after all these fasting during the month, Allah grants all their wishes. This month is special to every Muslim for more than one reason and this is the time they revise their lesson how to lead an abstained life, abstain from unnecessary entertainment, food, drink or other elements of life.
After this day long fasting, when the sun goes down at around 6:30 pm all the devoted Muslims come together to read their namaz and thank God for the enormous bounty he has given us, and then they go for the Iftar. The term ‘iftar’ actually means the first meal of the day, i.e. the breakfast. So obviously the arrangements have to be grand and definitely very special. It is believed that you need to sit for iftar in groups. Often the entire family comes together for iftar and shares food from the same plate, customarily from a large copper plate (typically for four people) called a traami. Traditionally everyone sits on the floor and starts off by having the dates (khajoor) which is extremely nutritious. Then they move on to fruits, sherbet, pakodis, and more.
So, these evenings are special and after the entire day of fasting the evenings arrive with its share of sweets, clothes, perfumes, food and loads of activity! The streets and alleys get buzzing. In the heart of central Kolkata there is one such locality which is dwelled by Muslim families having their roots in Awadh or Bihar. This is the oldest Muslim settlement in the city of joy! This area lies alongside the nearly century old spectacular Nakhoda Masjid! This iconic mosque was built as an imitation of mausoleum of Mughal Emperor Akbar at Sikandra, Agra.
The slim alleys of Phears Lane and Zakaria Street start glowing bright once the sun goes down during this season. There are so many temporary stalls that pop up during this time with clothes, utensils, sweets, fruits, kababs, fried meats, haleem and more. It’s hard to believe you are still in Kolkata when you walk through these alleys and browse though the amazing stuffs on display. So, my article today will only revolve ‘round these famous alleys and the food you get here during the iftar.
Many of us are familiar with Chitpur’s Royal ka biriyani which is very close by, in fact at one end of this foodilicious alley. We had amazing biriyani, haleem, and Shahi Tukra at Royal as well during our food walk, but that I will cover in details maybe in another article which will be solely on Royal Indian Hotel. Let’s come back to the appetizing and glowing road side stalls and eateries which offer loads during the iftar. Let’s start with the Rooh-afza which is an integral part of iftar and Eid celebrations in general. The ones available at roadside stalls at Zakaria Street are dirt cheap and truly quench your thirst, better not to worry about the source of that water! They taste amazing in faloodas as well. Here, let me tell you that these food stalls operate all day long though the Muslims are on fast from sunrise to sunset.
After Rooh-afza, let me come straight to the fruit stalls. You will find several stalls selling plates of sliced fruits and dates, since dates and fruits are primarily used for breaking the fast people do pick up their favorite plate of fruits before moving on to anything else.
Next you will notice the fabulous looking bread stalls, that sport some huge breads which really looks fascinating, as well as bit appetizing. These are the crisp Bakarkhanis and soft and sweet sheermals. Apart from these two, there are so many types of breads and biscuits on display that you can feel spoilt for choices. Surely make it a point to buy some and carry back home.
Now if you move ahead you will find various kinds of fried meat, fried fish and even fried fish heads. In fact I also spotted a place selling fried beef fat. For most of these fried items, you can directly go to ‘Taskeen’ which is bookmarked by many yet visited by some, it’s hard to reach these places during iftar i.e. after the sunset for heavy rush and congested roads. Tasken is known for their big fried chicken pieces or Chicken Chagezi as it’s called. I was amazed to see how big a piece of katla (fish) can be! Those fish and chicken pieces were displayed at the entrance coated heavily with haldi and masalas (for marination) ready to be fried.
The huge fried katla pieces are called Mahi Akbari and they should be tried at least once, if you are really on any kind of food walk. By the way, there are many other stalls selling these items and I have tried these fried items from more than one place. Most importantly I found, the meat or the fish used is very fresh which acts as a catalyst to make the thing more delectable. In fact you will easily spot several places selling full fried katla fish, and these are huge katla fishes. They also sell fried pomfret fish which is amazing to savor with a dash of lemon.
Now coming to the kababs. You will find so many road side stalls preparing and selling piping hot kababs. Open oven roasts the meat and comes to your plate while you are waiting eagerly for your favorite mutton, beef or chicken kababs. There are various tyles of kababs that you will find being sold around Nakhoda Masjid area. They are reshmi kababs, tangri kababs, khiri kababs, gurda (kidney) kababs and extremely unique and rare Sutli kababs.
And for Sutli or Suta kabab you have to visit the hidden gem called Adam’s Kabab Shop at Phears Lane. Adam’s Kabab shop is more than 100 years old and continue to mesmerize the tourists and passionate foodies who care only about the flavor and aroma of the food, not about the surroundings. People obsessed with fine-dine restaurants, fashion freaks or ones addicted to the chic malls and foreign brands may choose to give this place a miss, this place is not for you. You need to forget about hygiene for a while if you are here in these lanes, and Adam’s kabab shop is no exception. The place helps you get back to your roots, to stay raw, to stay real!
When the humans walked for the first time on Earth they didn’t use Dettol Hand Sanitizer before their meals!! And as the name of the place goes it reminds us of the first human being on earth, Adam. In Islam, Adam is also believed to be the first prophet on earth. Adam’s role as the father of the human race is looked upon by Muslims with reverence and they also refer his wife, Eve as the “mother of mankind”. Muslims see Adam as the first Muslim. As the Quran states that all the prophets preached the same faith of submission to God.
When I was here, I met the owner Md. Salauddin who was busy winding his magical threads on the kebabs before placing them on the barbeque pit. Now these were the so called Suta kababs I was talking about. These kababs actually comprise of a smooth paste of beef meat and flavorful spices which are put around the thick long metal sheikh. The meat is smooth and pounded to such a homogeneous texture that they tend to fall off from the sheikh, and this happens because basically the binding element is used in very less quantity which I believe is the daal. Less binding element in the meat paste guarantees more softness and juiciness of the meat. So an external binding element is used instead and that is the super fine threads (or suta) which are wrapped around the meat on the sheikh so that they don’t fall off. The sheikhs with the meat wrapped around and tied by the suta is put on the flaming barbeque pit.
When the stuff gets ready it is removed from the heat and the thread is removed, it is then served on paper plates with a slice of lime, onion and chopped green chilies. The crumbled meat mixed with onion and green chilies will melt in your mouth, and leave behind a kick of spiciness, bit tanginess for the lemon juice and loads of happiness for that explosion of flavors in your mouth. And by the way, these are the best Suta Kebabs you will find in the entire country.
Now after the Suta kababs, let us move ahead to other stalls like the ones with huge heaps of vermicelli which are used to prepare sevai kheer. As you keep on exploring, you will find many sweet shops and their specialties. Like the kesariya jalebis at the Liyaqat Sweets or the pure ghee delicacies at century old Haji Allauddin sweet shop. Tried their amritis, mutton samosas, and gulab jamuns, all were incredible!
And don’t miss the nearly century old Aminia, its Awadhi biriyani and Haleem should be tried out for sure. Haleem is slow cooked for several hours and in the end the meat almost blends with the lentils or rice so that all the ingredients gets mingled to form a paste like substance that is flavorful, aromatic and highly nutritious.
At several places stock of the paya i.e. the goat’s leg is slow boiled for 20 hours before it goes into the haleem. There can be various types of Haleems like Chicken, Mutton, Beef; at places you even get maghaz (brain) haleem or zabaan (tongue) haleem! The festive haleem is also a great thing to try out at the Royal Indian Hotel which was set up in the year 1905. When you come to this place, it seems you have come into an age where time has stopped and where values and traditions are more important than anything else.
This place is surely iconic, and your food journey is incomplete if you haven’t visited these skinny alleys. For a foodie, a Ramzan food walk must start with this holy Nakhoda Masjid area. More so, because this area has got everything you want and many things you haven’t ever heard of. This article of mine was a very insignificant effort to capture a bit of this place, its alleys, and its glitter during the Ramzan and definitely the glorious food items you can get here. This is an area unknown to many city dwellers. If you can brave the commotion, crowded alleys and rush of the daily wage laborers this place is surely for you, this is a different world altogether, something which can’t be easily explained by novice writers like me! I urge you all to visit this place and experience the gastronomical kaleidoscope during Ramzan (at least once) during or just before the sunset, it will surely be a memorable experience, something which you haven’t experienced before. And do not forget to try out the food items mentioned here in this article!