Ramadan Specials: Iftaar at Charminar.

A view of Charminar from the gates of Osmania Hospital.

A view of Charminar from the gates of Nizamia Hospital.

Eid has come and gone already, and I know this post is way behind time – but it’s less than a week since Ramadan ended, so I can be forgiven. I think.

This year, I had the good fortune of being in Hyderabad during Ramadan. Eager to explore what the city of Nizams had to offer in terms of food and colour, I dragged a friend to Charminar for Iftaar – the opening of fast – one evening. And Boy Oh Boy, the joie de vivre there is entirely different from Bangalore.

Jumma Masjid near Charminar, moments before the siren went off.

Jumma Masjid near Charminar, moments before the siren went off.

For starters, the place is so packed that you can’t move an inch without elbowing someone or stamping the odd toe. The approach to Charminar comes with its usual bustle – people hawking hairbands and miscellaneous accessories, while Hyderabadi bikers and car drivers zig-zag across roads like drunk crabs out of water (there’s a popular saying among seasoned drivers, actually – if you can drive in Hyderabad, you can drive anywhere in the world). Once you get closer to Charminar, though, it’s a different story. The centuries-old structure stands guard to the crazy frenzy of mankind. It’s as if thousands of years ago, Time decided to stroll through the streets, came across Charminar and was so taken by its majesty that it completely forgot to move on.

Jumma Masjid after the dusk prayers.

Jumma Masjid after the dusk prayers.

There are tons of shops and stalls and carts with fruits everywhere, but there’s a certain order in the chaos. The roads were so full of burqa-clad women and men in white skull caps that it appeared as if the traffic was stuck in a black and white maze, trying to find a path that would lead to the finish.

Q: Why did the vendors wait patiently for customers? A: Because they knew that their patience would bear fruit. (Yeah, I know. Bad one.)

Q: Why did the vendors wait patiently for customers?
A: Because they knew that their patience would bear fruit. (Yeah, I know. Bad one.)

My friend and I reached at the right time – the siren went off just as we parked the car. Rather than stopping to open their fast, we saw people fly into an even greater frenzy. There were at least 60 fruit carts lined up on one side of Charminar – it gave me a serious complex as a Bangalorean. During Iftaar, us Bangaloreans leap for the nearest fried goodies we can lay our hands on and stuff it down our throats, followed by copious amounts of meat and rice and juices. In Hyderabad, everyone ran for the fruit carts. The carts outnumbered sellers of samosas and fried meats by 60:2 – I kid you not. (Yeah, we found just two non-fruit selling stalls. And they stuck out like sore thumbs.)

 

Dahi Vadas in all their splendour. Please do not miss the deep-fried chillies sticking upright as a garnish!

Dahi Vadas in all their splendour. Please do not miss the deep-fried chillies sticking upright as a garnish!

 

Sesame-crusted Fried Chicken. Superbly marinated in spices and lip-smackingly delicious.

Sesame-crusted Fried Chicken. Superbly marinated in spices and lip-smackingly delicious.

 

Pickle in their blood: Hyderabadis are crazy about pickles. The old city especially is known for its variety of pickles. The most remarkable is the Tarkari ka Achaar - pickled vegetables in a base of raw tamarind paste and spices.

Hyderabadis are crazy about pickles. The old city especially is known for its variety of pickles. The most remarkable is the Tarkari ka Achaar – pickled vegetables in a base of raw tamarind paste and spices.

Hyderabadis have a wicked sense of humour – at least the ones on the old city side. Most of them are charmingly incorrigible, I would say. The salesmen are especially glib, ready with retorts to any queries or conversations you may have with them. While I tried all sorts of weird squats to capture Charminar from different angles, the fruit vendors around me kept nudging each other and giggling, addressing me as aapa – elder sister. Completely unnecessary, considering 98% of them were ancient compared to me! “Kya aapa, konse newspaper ke vaaste hai ye? Arrey photo lere bhai, aake thairo yaan, thoda pose-an maaro!” (So, elder sister, which newspaper is this for? Hey, she’s taking photographs, come and stand here and give her some poses!”) By the end of the night, their glibness had resulted in clearly visible embarrassment on my cheeks that matched the colour of the pomegranates on sale.

Salesmen in Hyderabad don't have the least qualms in draping sarees and showing them off to customers. This young chap here beckoned me over to his shop and asked me to take a picture. "Maidum", said his companion sitting off-camera, "Don't take his face, you won't be able to see anything in print. Or just do some Photoshop on him, make him fairer." He grinned as I looked at him with bulging eyes, then at the saree-clad man. He just grinned too and posed some more for my camera.

Salesmen in Hyderabad don’t have the least qualms in draping sarees and showing them off to customers. This young chap here beckoned me over to his shop and asked me to take a picture. “Maidum”, said his companion sitting off-camera, “Don’t take his face, you won’t be able to see anything in print. Or just do some Photoshop on him, make him fairer.” He grinned as I looked at him with bulging eyes, then at the saree-clad man. He just grinned too and posed some more for my camera.

Once we were done sampling the food, my friend and I decided to move towards Laad Bazaar – another lane branching off from Charminar, home to endless shops selling bangles of all kinds. Walking into the lane is like stepping onto the red carpet – the hide and seek of sparkles from shiny, glittering bangles emulating a million flashbulbs going off. There’s glitter everywhere, making one feel like one’s entered some sort of fairyland. And the bangles? Oh. My. God. Lac bangles with engravings, traditional sona glass bangles worn by brides, the bridal joda, thick bangles studded with shiny stones – the variety is mind-numbing.

Laad Bazaar at Charminar.

Laad Bazaar at Charminar.

 

Shimmer, sparkle, glitter - the bangles of Laad Bazaar.

Shimmer, sparkle, glitter – the bangles of Laad Bazaar.

 

Traditional Sona - delicate glass bangles worn by women with thick stone-studded bangles. A bridal trousseau is incomplete without them.

Traditional Sona – delicate glass bangles worn by women with thick stone-studded bangles. A bridal trousseau is incomplete without them.

As I saw people walk around the food stalls and women walk into the stores and whip out dresses/sarees to match colours of the bangles to their Eid clothes, I was taken back to my summer holidays many moons ago. Every one of my vacations was spent in Hyderabad – fearlessly exploring the tombs, climbing up to Charminar, shopping for weddings of aunts and cousins at Laad Bazar,  and earnestly hoping that this part of Hyderabad would always stand still despite time and preserve all its magic. That there would always be that energy, that shimmer, that madness that can only be associated with this particular part of the world. Imagine my surprise and joy when I went back this time to the comforting knowledge that the pollution levels may have gone up, inflation may have taken a toll, people may have grown more impatient, but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed still: the magic.

Gateway into present-day living from the old city.

Gateway into present-day living from the old city.

Getting there: Charminar isn’t hard to access, but it’s super-difficult to find parking space around here. I would recommend taking an auto or a cab here and going back home the same way.

Go if: You love experiencing moments of magic. And food. And life.

Ramadan Specials: Travelling down Mosque Road in search of the perfect 3-course Muslim meal.

Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is more commonly known) is the time most looked forward to by Muslims around the world. It was during this month that the Quran came into being with Prophet Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) revelations. The month is spent observing fasts from the break of dawn to the beginnings of dusk – over 12 hours usually – without ingesting a morsel of food, drinking a drop of water or even swallowing one’s saliva. After 30 days of fasting, the month of Ramadan culminates in Eid – a celebration of the month gone by.

But this is not the only reason that Ramadan is well-known in India. The biggest reason behind a large population looking forward to this time is because of the food. Obviously when people have been fasting for over 12 hours, they will not tolerate average food during the opening of the fast at dusk. So the spread is a choice of delectable meats, rices, savouries, sweets and soups. You’ll see hundreds of shops and eat streets across India catering to this rush of people.

In Bangalore, there are a handful of places that come alive during Ramadan, and Mosque Road is one of them. The mosque takes permission for letting people put up rows and rows of stalls that stretch a kilometre, with mouth-watering foods from various parts of South India. This phenomenon was hidden from me for the better part of this month till I happened to travel past it one evening and watched agape at the culinary orgy being displayed to attract the passing crowds. And I’ve been wanting to capture it ever since.

As I recuperate from Eid excess, I want to leave you with my epicurean adventures on Mosque Road three nights ago.

First, it is important to soak in the atmosphere and become one with the mass of bodies screaming their orders and belting food like a famine’s about to strike the world in a couple of hours.

Crowds circulate among the roadside stalls lining Mosque Road, leaving enough room for a two wheeler to use the road.

Second, take a look around. See which stalls have interesting names and which ones have interesting food.

Inspired cooking, indeed.

Third, start with an appetiser. Kababs are the perfect beginning to a two hour-long meal. Choose from chicken kabab, mutton kabab, veal kabab, shaamis, boti kabab, chicken stick, chicken shaslik, vegetable patty…

What did the chicken sheekh tell the mutton sheekh when they got caught having an affair? “We’re so skewered!”

Fourth, walk around a little more and see what gets your taste buds going for the main course.

To the left: A milk sherbet with fruits and sabz ke seeds (I have no idea what the English name for those is), matka phirni, beef cutlets, strawberry cheesecake.
To the right: Fresh-baked biscuits, little puris with coconut filling, paper napkins, plastic covers and bottled pickles.

This menu’s been beefed up.

Shahi Tukda: Bread fried and cooked in sugar syrup and khova.

Serves 100: Home to over 6 kilos of Biryani, this is the classic utensil used in preparing one of the most popular rice dishes.

“Aaaaachickensamosamuttonsamosaonionsamosaaaaaaaa!”

The Making of a Chicken Roll: juicy, melt-in-your-mouth chicken meets soft, almost translucent Rumali roti in an explosion of flavour.

Peacockery: Show off your wares, and you’re bound to attract more people.

Patthar Gosht: This is one of the fast-disappearing traditional way of cooking meat. Choose a slab of stone, wash it well and set it on a heap of coal. Let it get really, really, really hot. Marinate the meat of your choice, pour some oil over the stone and follow it up with the meat. Stir and turn until cooked. This meat is especially flavourful because not only does it cook in its own juices, but it also takes on a certain earthy taste from the stone. *Yumm*

Kheema Paratha: Available in both chicken and mutton versions, this paratha is stuffed with cooked meat and cooked again. Apparently, they made 1000 parathas a day.

Fifth, when you know you can eat no more, eat a paan.

Magai paan: Bite-size paans stuffed with Gulkhand and garnished with a cherry. Best eaten chilled.

Sixth, because you can be such a glutton and are constantly greedy when it comes to food, grab a kulfi.

Pista Kulfi and Walnut Kulfi at the Bombay Chowpatti Kulfi shop. Absolutely delicious and a must-try.

Waiting to exhale: These chefs work in the kitchens till dusk and then in the stalls from then on. Can’t be easy.

Getting there: Go by auto, especially if you decide to visit during Ramadan next year. Taking a cab or bike is utter chaos. Almost all autos know where Mosque Road is, so just say that.

Go if: You love food, meat, biryani, pulsating crowds because they make you feel alive.