2013-07-14

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a culinary walk around Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road on an empty stomach and return with a bellyful of stories



The mere mention of ‘Mohammed Ali Road’ conjures up images of large cauldrons of sputtering malpua and endless rows of kebab stalls staying open through the night during Ramzan. For food lovers, a trip to Mumbai’s old Muslim quarter during the holy month is no less than a gastronomical pilgrimage. The mile long stretch under JJ Flyover from Nagpada Junction to Minara Masjid is a complex maze of delights and it’s easy to miss legendary pitstops if you don’t know where to go.

In these lanes, you can order a Chicken Sanju Baba as you gaze at an MF Hussain original, polish off hand-churned ice-cream at a 120 year old shop, try absurdly named dishes from Aflatoon to Ghotala, balance your Moradabadi biryani with Burhanpur jalebis, taste unique dishes of Memon and Dawoodi Bohra cuisines and follow a food trail that is inspired from regions as diverse as Surat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh to UK, Burma, Iran and Yemen.



The taxi blaring qawwalis of Tina Parveen-Tasleem Arif dropped us near JJ Hospital Blood Bank as we crossed over to the other side. After an hour-long aural hemorrhage we were ready to face a complete assault of our senses. The sight of deep-fried parathas and tantalizing smoky aroma of kebabs hanging in the drizzle was enough to draw us inside Al Rehmani.

We went for their popular seekh-paratha served with mint leaves, onion rings and coriander chutney. The crisp paratha was crunchy and complemented the succulent kebab perfectly. We stepped next door to Zaika, a tiny stall dominated by a large tawa churning out baida roti, chicken roll and tangdi kebab.



We had barely taken our third step on MS Ali Road, when JJ Jalebi stopped us dead in our tracks. Like a calligraphy artist, an attendant squeezed out dough from a muslin cloth, and scripted jalebis in hot oil as if they were verses in Arabic. But unlike regular jalebis, these were dark brown and thicker.

The scrumptious mawa jalebis looked similar but had a sinfully chewy texture. Haji Chhote Khan, who came from Kanpur started the shop in 1947 and named it after the location – JJ Corner. Knowing that we had a marathon gorging session ahead, we decided to eat small portions and punctuate it with an assortment of sweets and beverages that we were slowly discovering.

Soon we were in the crush of tightly packed shop clusters, houses and galis. The story goes that when population within Mumbai’s Fort burgeoned in the early 1800s, this was one of the first neighbourhoods that sprung up outside. The area allegedly abounded in fields of bhendi or Indian tulip trees (Thespesia populnea) and was named after it. Some believe it comes from a corruption of ‘Behind the Bazaar’ since it was located behind Crawford Market.

But Kasambhai Sorathia, a local, contended the name comes from the bhindi (ladies finger) that used to be unloaded here from sailboats docking nearby. ‘Earlier this area was called Dhandwari mohalla after dhaan (rice). Then, from Anaj Mandi it became Doctor Street, as every type of doctor, hakim (medicine man) and haddiwala (bone setter) was located here. And finally it became Bohri Mohalla. Much before Gulf struck oil, Arabs used to stand there and hawk dates,’ he reminisced.

We turned left onto Pakmodia Street and stopped at Fakhri Sweets. Started about 72 years ago by Mansoor Ali Dosaji Mithaiwala, it was named after Fakhruddin Shaheed, a Dawoodi Bohra saint martyred at Galiyakot in Rajasthan. Mansoor Ali invented the salam pak, a sweet made of gond, mawa and ghee, though the shop is famous for mawa samosa, doodhi halwa and malai khaja, available in mango, chiku and other fruity flavours. Preparations for Ramzan start 10 days in advance with seasonal specials like sutter finni. A thread-like sweet similar to budhi ka baal (white cotton candy), it is mixed with milk and eaten at sehri, the early morning meal before dawn.

We reached Khara Tank Road to sample special concoctions at Idris Cold Drink. Manning the counter was young Idris who suggested we try the variyali, an icy kiwi-green drink made of saunf or fennel. “Also Idris Special” and before we could react, a cranberry red sherbet was served, reminding us of the famous Roohafza. But these were all homemade syrups that used a host of essences served up with a mild fizz of soda.

The shop was started by Zainuddin, his father, 25 years ago and has a huge fan following. “After you finish eating everything in the other lanes, come back for Rimzim, a masala drink with jeera and spices that’s great for digestion!” he called after us. On the opposite corner, we tried baida roti at a Mohammedan version of KFC – JFC (Jilani Fastfood Corner). Surprisingly the dish is like Murtabak, literally ‘folded’ in Arabic, which originated in Yemen and has an equivalent in Burma!

At Tawakkal Sweets, business was brisk as we watched the staff rush between trays of soft mango malai and black currant mithai, the biggest draws. Heaps of gigantic sunny jalebis were being packed away. Moayyad, the third generation mithaiwala sat us down and told us Tawakkal’s fascinating story.

His great grandfather Ismail ji Alibhai Mithaiwala ran a shoe shop earlier, which wasn’t very successful. When he sought the advice of the High Priest Syedna Taher Saifuddin, he was instructed to switch to making mithai and name his new enterprise tawakkal (faith). His fortunes began to turn and soon his son Abdullah Mithaiwala and grandson Shabbir took over the reins. What began as a small shop with only three items – dahi wada, boondi, jalebi went on to become one of Mumbai’s finest sweetmeat stalls.

“Our sweets are premium because we offer better quality. We don’t compromise on the purity of our ingredients,” he says with unconcealed pride. And neither are they apologetic of the high price. Moayyad, who finished a 1-year course in bakery after college intends to reinvent the place by adding a high-end bakery. He has already included contemporary recipes like chocolate barfi and choco walnut fudge.  

Tawakkal’s otherwise traditional repertoire includes aflatoon, salam pak, besan laddu and khaja barfi. Among Muslims, such sweets are usually distributed at happy occasions like the birth of children. “People don’t realize that in Bohri Mohalla you get better stuff and it’s less crowded. Mohammed Ali Road is for the masses. The tragedy is that people visit Bohri Mohalla but say they went to Mohammed Ali Road!”

In the adjacent shop, seated by a wooden desk full of coins and surrounded by pans sizzling with shami kebabs, chicken and mutton bhunna (fried mixes) and baida rotis was 77-year-old Haji Mohammed Zaheer. He has been running this place with an iron hand for the last 44 years. His love for food is evident in the fact that he singlehandedly does all the shopping. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth soft and the people were queuing up fast.

 

Haji Mohammed Zaheer chuckled. ‘It’s my own special technique. If someone has to leave his home-cooked food and eat outside, there better be a strong reason for it, no? Seeing huge crowds outside his shop, people would often ask ‘Idhar kuchh muft bant raha hai kya?’ (Is something being distributed here for free?)

Though Haji Mohammed grew up during the British days, his love for the country prompted him to name his shop Indian Hotel. “I came at a time when it was ‘sasta (economical) Mumbai’. Over the years I have seen so many types of currencies being changed… The people who trained under me have gone places – iss gali, uss gali, Bandra, Dubai, Sharjah… Parents came here with children on their hips. Now those children have grown and come with their children! It’s a personal bond. They don’t say let’s go to eat today, they say ‘Chalo aaj chacha ke yahan jaate hain (let’s go visit uncle today).’

Farida, a medical secretary cum beautician, was one such girl whom we met. She has been a regular for 17 years. “I come once a week. Even when I was working in VT area and now live in Mazgaon, distance is not a problem! Chacha’s items are so tasty. Baida roti, naan sandwich, mutton roll are my favourites,” she chirped, oblivious to the pelting rain.

We nibbled on some khara biscuit at Imdadiya Bakery and tried gathiya at Firoz Farsan. The Patra Biryani was over, but since we had bulging bellies already, it wasn’t such a bad thing. Next door at Taj Icecream, Hatim Sharaf Icecreamwallah treated us to ‘sancha’ ice-cream – hand-churned delights started 125 years ago by his grandfather Tyeb Ali Karim Bhai.

 

Over a bowl of icy sitaphal (custard apple) he explained how this road was earlier called Phool gali as flower sellers lined the street leading to an old temple that stood there. Then it became Khara Tank Road and now it was Sayed Aboo Mohmed Road. 

The aroma of Haji Tikka was enough to make us waft outside but we settled for a bowl of piping hot Shahi Darbar khichda at Jalil Ahmed. The porridge of meat, wheat and pulses was topped with fried onion, coriander and lime. As aficionados of Tingler and Campa Cola it was sheer epiphany to encounter another old world beverage – Sosyo.

In 1923, Surat entrepreneur Abdul Hajoori began bottling a UK-based drink Vimto, a ‘Vim-tonic’ made of grapes, raspberry, black currant juice and herbs. When Gandhiji called for a ban of imported products under the Swadeshi movement, Mohsin Abdul Rahim Hajoori introduced an Indian variant in 1927. The taste was described as ‘the perfect mix of whiskey, rum and soda’ and was called ‘Whisky No’.

Later the apple and grape cider was named ‘Socio’, derived from the Latin word ‘Socious’, meaning social, which eventually became Sosyo! Each year, over 50 million bottles are consumed, mainly in Gujarat and Maharashtra and even exported as far as UAE, South Africa, New Zealand, UK and USA.

Sosyo’s digestive property helped us deal with one small pyali of Mohammed Kareem’s Chana Masala. Combined with potato and various meat gravies, it was unlike anything we had tasted before. Surat was also responsible for another intriguing influence –12 handi ka paaya. The concept started off in Surat’s Muslim localities like Jhanpa bazaar as 12 bakre ka paya or 12 parts of a goat.

Various parts like aankh (eye), zabaan (tongue), gurda (kidney), kaleji (liver), pichota (tail), paya (trotters), etc were stewed separately in various masalas. The curries are then mixed together. There would be different ladles and spoons for different vessels, especially for bada (beef) and chhota (mutton). The zabaan would often smell the next day so over time the ingredients were simplified.

At the century old shop of Valibhai Payawala, Abdul Rehman prepared a bowl while his attendant deftly churned out its perfect accompaniment Moghlai roti or Khameeri roti. Made with khameer, stale dough for leavening, the light breads are also called Yahudi roti as filmmaker Arbaz Khan once told him.

Further down Gujar Street was Surti 12 Handi, manned by Haji Ghulam Mustafa. His grandfather Ibrahim gifted the shop to his father Ismail when he became a hafiz (one who can recite the Koran by memory) and Haji Ghulam planned to gift the 75-year-old establishment to his son when he becomes one!

‘Everything is slow cooked for 8-12 hours’, Haji Ghulam explained. ‘The main thing is to check the masalas and aanch (heat). If it’s more, the meat will overcook and separate from the bone, if it’s less, the pieces will become hard. What’s cooked in morning is served at night, what’s cooked overnight is served at dawn.’ Keeping the uncomplicated life cycle intact, we sopped up the nalli nahari with a side order from the adjacent 90-year-old shop Mohammed Khan Roti.

His grandson Wajid Ali Khan said that since these rotis lasted for days, customers often packed rotis for relatives in Bhavnagar, Kathiawar and Pune! Haji Ghulam asked us to come again for a more leisurely bite. ‘For Ramzan they charge whatever they feel like at Minara Masjid. But here, whether you come in an aeroplane or a rickshaw, our rates are always written outside!’

We walked past the hooded monument of Raudat Tahera, the marble mausoleum of Dr. Syedna Taher Saifuddin, spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohras. The Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT) has earmarked the entire area for redevelopment and one can only wonder how its humble eateries will cope among the highrises or will perhaps forever lose their old-world charm. Bohri Mohalla had stretched us to the limit and after some fasting we returned for our tryst with Mohammed Ali Road on the most auspicious day before Ramzan. It was Shabe Baraat, the Night of Salvation…

Noor Mohammadi Hotel, started in 1923 has made a name for its unique dishes – Chicken white biryani, Chicken Hakimi, a dry tangy dish with Amul butter and curd and Chicken Sanju Baba, a recipe using khada masala (whole spices) shared by actor Sanjay Dutt. On 27 Nov 2003, MF Hussain was inspired to make an impromptu sketch of a rooster, now framed at the restaurant, which the waiter decoded as ‘Suraj ugte hi murga azaan deta hai aur log khane ko aa jate hain’ (As the sun rises, the rooster calls and people come here to eat)!

The flyover snaked overhead as we reached Minara Masjid. It had taken us a week to get here from Bohri Mohalla! After a quick nibble at Zam Zam Sweets, we reached another famous confectioner. Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala established a small bakery in 1936 selling nankhatai and other items. His invention was the Aflatoon, a sweet made of mava and other ‘secret’ ingredients. Honored with several ‘gold medals’ for food,  today his fourth generation has expanded the range to 400 items like barfis made out of anjeer (fig), zardalu (apricot) and other dry fruits.  

Right opposite, Hindustan Restaurant was legendary for its chhota kebab, eaten with lamba paav available at Amir Khan Bakery, which also baked excellent naan and sheermal. During Ramzan, Hindustan opens its shutters at iftari (evening meal) and closes at azaan (morning call to prayer). Khichdi is served as sehri, the pre-dawn meal before the fast while khichda (meat and wheat porridge) is available on Friday and Sunday.

Siddique Bhai shed light on the emergence of Mohammed Ali Road as Mumbai’s premier ‘khau gali’ (feasting lane). The wholesale market on Abdul Rehman Street drew traders from afar while mosques like Minara Masjid, Ismail Habib Masjid and Zakariya Masjid resulted in a steady stream of the devout. That’s how the first lodges and eateries proliferated. Makeshift stalls during Ramzan stand cheek by jowl and customers jostle for elbowroom for a good bite. ‘Jiska haath mazboot hai wo apna jagah bana leta hai,’ smiled Siddique.

There were more revelations next door. Sahil Restaurant’s head chef Shirazuddin Khan Dilliwale was guarding three silvery ghadas (pots) with Nalli Nahari, Mughlai Dum Keema and Moradabadi Biryani like treasure. He belonged to a long tradition of bawarchis (traditional cooks), a genealogy that went back 37 generations, with a haveli in Daryaganj gifted by Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar!

 

According to him, nahari started with Taimur Lang (Timur the Lame) who got a slow-cooking spicy broth concocted for his battle-worn soldiers. He challenged that his Mughlai food was better than any 5-star hotel. ‘We’re doing it in the open but nobody can duplicate our taste. Char ghade bisht bhare, chor takey le na sake (Four pots of water, thieves can only watch but cannot steal). The secret is our masala’, he said tapping a box.

Mohammed Hanif and Mohammed Abrar of Burhanpur Jalebi Centre had brought along secrets from their 40-year-old shop at Burhanpur’s Subhash Chowk. Besides Mawa jalebi, dahi bada and gulabjamun, they also made manda, a massive paper-thin roti made on an upturned tawa. A stall near the popular Chinese Grill served a typical Memon sweet – Saandal. The recipe is over 200 years old and Abdul Kader Mansoor was its seventh generation custodian. Made of rice, sugar, coconut milk and mawa, the dish is steamed in containers after a laborious cooking and fermentation process. It looks like idli, feels as soft as cotton and is served with a topping of malai and pista.

 

Next to him during Ramzan sits Hussein Bhai, who churns out another specialty called Bhandoli, a small yellowish malpua with egg. It was uncanny, on our long walk from Bohri Mohalla to Memon Mohalla we had eaten almost everything except the ubiquitous malpua. With Ramzan just around the corner, we’ve already begun fasting…

WHERE TO EAT

Al Rehmani Restaurant
2-4, Ebrahim Rehmatullah Road, JJ Corner
Ph 022-23472914
6am-1am (open till 4am during Ramzan)
Must try: Seekh-Paratha, Chicken fry, tangdi kebab

Zayka
JJ Junction, MS Ali Road
Ph 98212 06285
Must try: Tangdi kebab, Baida roll

JJ Jalebi
Shop No 4, Pradhan Building, Maulana Shaukat Ali Road, Bohri Mohalla
Ph 9819556929 (Shadab) 6am-11:30pm 
Must try: Jalebi, malpua, rabdi, gulabjamun, halwa paratha, boondi

Fakhri Sweets
62, Husainiyah Marg, Pakmodia Street, Bhendi Bazaar
Ph 022-23466706, 23473492, 9920705852 www.fakhrisweets.com
Must try: Salam pak, Mawa samosa, Doodhi halwa, Malai khaja

Idris Cold Drink
101, Pakmodiya Street
Ph 9820190353
8am-1pm, 3pm-10pm
Must try: Variyali, Rimzim, Falooda, blueberry & other beverages

Tawakkal Sweets
26, Khara Tank Road, Bohri Mohalla, Bhendi Bazaar
Ph 022-23466360/53
Must try: Mango Malai, Black Currant Malai, Malai Khaja, Boondi/Besan laddu

Indian Hotel
92/96, Shop No.1/2, Bohri Mohalla, Khara Tank Road, Bhendi Bazaar
Ph 022-23460687, 9819047255
Must try: Baida roti, Shami kebab, Chicken roll, Mutton roll, Bhuna tawa, Bheja/gurda tawa

HM Jalil Cold Drink House
79/83, Arsiwala Building, Dhaboo Street
Ph 022-23462237, 8976639555. 9am-midnight
Must try: Shahi darbar khichda, Chicken pakoda, Sosyo

Imdadiya Bakery
39, Sayed Aboo Mohd Road (Khara Tank Road)
Ph 022-23461515, 23462525. 5:30am-9pm
Must try: Khara biscuit, khara butter toast, meetha biscuit, cream cake, slice cake

Taj Ice-cream
36/40, Khara Tank Road, Saifee Ambulance Lane, Bhendi Bazaar
Ph 022-23461257 www.tajicecream.com
Must try: Sitafal, mango, strawberry and grape ice-cream

Haji Tikka
76, Raudat Tahera Street, Opp Evan-e-Husseni Hall
5pm-11pm
Must try: Barbeque chicken, chicken tikka, seekh kebab, chicken leg/breast

Mohammed Kareem Chana Masale wala
105, Saifi Jubilee Street, Null Bazaar, Mumbai 400003
Ph 022-23461945. 9am-10:30pm
Must try: Chana masala (Rs.15), Mix (Rs.40)

Valibhai Payawala
45, Gujar Street, Near Zainabia Hall, Bohri Mohalla
Ph 93207 77110
Must try: 12 handi paya (Rs.150), Khameeri Roti

Surti 12 Handi
12, Dharamsey Cross Street, Bohri Mohalla
Ph 9819305788. 5am-10am, 5pm-10pm (Ramzan 8:30pm-Midnight)
Must try: Special Nahari, Paya, Sukhha, Bhel, Pichotta (Rs.100)

Mohammed Khan Rotiwale
10, Gujar Street, Bohri Mohalla
Ph 8879520029
Must try: Mughlai Roti (Single, Special, Double, Paratha)

Noor Mohammadi Hotel
181, IR Road, Abdul Hakim Chowk, Bhendi Bazaar
Ph 022-23456008, 23476188
Must try: Chicken Sanju Baba, Chicken Hakimi, Chicken white biryani, Nalli nahari

Café Nizari
173, Ibrahim Rehmatullah Road, Bhendi Bazar Junction
Ph 022-23774232, 23718692. 6am-12 midnight
Must try: Nalli nahari, Aab gosht

Zam Zam Sweets & Bakery
Fancy Mahal, Mohammed Ali Road, Opp Minara Masjid
Ph 022-23475422, 23478695
Must try: Barfi, Aflatoon

Hindustan Restaurant
152, Ibrahim Mohammed Merchant Road, Near Minara Masjid
Ph 022-23478066, 23476241
Must try: Nalli nahari, Lamba-paav chhota kebab

Sahil Restaurant
144/146, IMM Road, Khadak, Near Minara Masjid
9930514159, 9004801578
Must try: Nalli Nahari, Moradabadi Biryani, Mughlai Dum Keema, Shahi khichda, Gurda/kapura/liver fry, Chicken Makhana, Chicken Kali Mirch, Mutton/Chicken Roll

Abdul Kader Mansoor’s Saandal stall
Kambekar Street corner, Opp Ismail Habib Masjid
Ph 9224417943, 9892034301
5:30pm-11pm (Ramzan timing: 12 noon-2 am)
Must try: Sandal (Rs.15)

Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala
167, Ibrahim Merchant Road, Below Minara Masjid t 022 23465059, 23443966
Bakery: 33, Mohammed Ali Road t 022 23454842. 7am-12midnight
Must try: Aflatoon, Malpua, Firni, Malai Khaja, Bread/Gajar halwa, Kopra Biscuit, Mango malai, Pineapple malai, Anjeer barfi, Dry fruit barfi, Mutton/Chicken patties

Burhanpur Jalebi Centre
Shop No.1, Minara Masjid Chowk
Ph 98193 12072 (Mohd Hanif)
Must try: Mawa jalebi, dahi bada, gulabjamun, manda

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

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