Seven Arabic years ago, when I was still vegetarian, and a rather squeamish one at that, a friend had regaled me with stories of going on a “meat walk” on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, savouring delicacies (I took his word) like ox’s tongue and cow’s udders. It was Ramzan, he said, and it was the time of the year when delicacies which were otherwise hardly available would make their way to the markets. He was going to make it an annual ritual to “do the meat walk”, he had said. I’m not sure about him, but I know that people who accompanied him on that walk do make it a point to repeat it annually.
I might have documented elsewhere about my transition to a carnivore back on our vacation to Greece two summers ago. At a streetside cafe there, the vegetarian stuff looked insipid while the meat looked succulent, and I converted. “If I’m to lose my religion I’ll lose it completely”, I had decided and started my meat eating career with some beef souvlaki. In the intervening two years (mostly in the last one year), I’ve tried several species, and nothing makes me queasy in terms of the source of my food – though I might change my mind after I complete the holiday I’ve been planning to the Far East.
My first “Ramzan walk” was in Bangalore two Arabic years ago. These walks (in each city) have their own ritual to it. In Bangalore, it starts at Albert Bakery on Mosque Road in Frazer Town, then proceeds across the road to Fatima House where they procure Haleem (flown in daily from Hyderabad). Then round the corner on to Madhavaswamy Mudaliar Road for some kebabs and then across that road for chaat and kulfi. I’ve done the exact ritual twice over already, and have quite enjoyed it (though the first time around I didn’t get down to eating Albert’s famed Brain Puffs). But people had so far told me that I hadn’t done “the real thing” until I did a similar Ramzan Walk on Mohammad Ali Road.
So this evening I made amends to that particular deficiency in my meat eating career. A bunch of people from my client’s office were planning their annual visit to the famed road for this evening, and I tagged along. I write this on a sugar high, after having stuffed myself with sweets through the evening.
The waiter at Tawakkal Sweets, off Mohammad Ali Road, reminded me of the priests at Mantralaya (of the Raghavendra Swami fame, in Andhra Pradesh). Priests and temple officials in Mantralaya are famed for their “maDi”, and their way of keeping themselves clean is by not touching anyone. So you have this ritual where one of the monks there gives you a stole, but in which he throws it over you from about a feet above your shoulders to prevent touching you. I don’t know if the waiter at Tawakkal had similar constraints in terms of keeping himself clean, but he kept plonking our sweets from about a few inches above the table, just enough to make sure that the Mango Malai (something like mango souffle with condensed milk) didn’t arrive on the table perfectly set. But I’m sure I ate more than my fair share of the Malai that arrived at the table, thus giving me the sugar high, which persists.
In Kannadiga Brahmin functions, I’ve never understood the concept of adding plain (unsweetened) milk to the sweet obbatt (aka hOLige). “Why add something that is not sweet to a sweet dish”, I’ve reasoned. After tonight I begin to suspect that the concept of obbatt with milk is borrowed from Malpoa with Malai. I used to think that the Malpoa is something like the “kajjaya”/”athrasa” but here at Tawakkal and elsewhere it seemed like a reconstructed French toast – where wheat flour is mixed with eggs and sugar to make a batter that is deep fried. And it is served with unsweetened thick cream – which perhaps my ancestors adopted as obbatt with plain milk. It is possible that all my previous encounters with Malpoa have been at vegetarian sweet shops, and hence the absence of the egg.
We wouldn’t be done after the Mango Malai and the Malpoa. There was still space left for food in our stomachs and sugar in our blood streams for us to eat mango phirni (kheer made with mashed rice and mangoes). And it wasn’t even the first time in the day that we were eating sweets. The Mumbai equivalent of Albert bakery is the brightly lit Suleiman Usman Bakery, with boards everywhere claiming it has “no branches”. Except that round the corner at EM Road (perpendicular to Mohammad Ali Road) there are at least two other shops which call themselves “Suleiman Usman Bakery”, and which too prominently display that they have no branches.
We began the meaty part of our walk at EM Road (the one with the two Suleiman Usman Bakeries (with no branches). To celebrate the occasion of the holy month, the street was extremely brightly lit, and shops had put out makeshift tables and chairs under a canopy on the road to accommodate the extra crowds (normally, like at other Muslim establishments, food is cooked at the entrance but served inside the shop). Maybe to add to the effect they had strung up what looked like pieces of chicken in psychedelic colours, and for further effect, displayed cages with little chicks even!
Chicken has taken over the world. Traditionally, Muslim establishments are known for their mutton, and sometimes beef. In certain circles (again primarily Muslim) it is considered beneath establishments to offer chicken. But this particular establishment on EM Road only seemed to serve chicken, apart from the odd mutton dish. It’s not really worth writing home about. And the lack of a regular menu means that people who look like tourists are likely to be overcharged.
Soon we were back on Mohammad Ali road for the main course, which was at Noor Mohammadi. Nalli Nihari was consumed with Tandoori Roti and onions, and washed down with Thums Up. This is one of those old style establishments, and one that doesn’t get bells and whistles for Ramzan. There is this ancient Hussain painting hanging on the walls, and next to that is a large board with the menu. Service was quick and efficient and one was reminded of Bangalore’s Vidyarthi Bhavan as the waiter pronounced the bill without much thinking and with great accuracy.
I’ll probably do a formal comparison after I experience Fraser Town sometime later this month, but in terms of sheer numbers (of people) and atmosphere, Mumbai definitely trumps Bangalore. In terms of food, though, I’m not so sure. Those little paper plates of kebabs you get in that corner shop across the Mosque on Madhavaswamy Mudaliar road seem much better than anything Mumbai serves up. But then, your mileage might vary.