The brief was spare: explore the buzzing food street at Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, which stays up till four am during Ramzan.
Three of us first-timers wondered whether to use the Time Out guide or let the milling crowd steer us through the street's menu; we settled for the latter.
One would think, it'd be easy to make conversation when you are so close — elbow to back — being propelled by the crowd by some who hopefully know where they are headed. But it isn't.
And as you can tell, in the frenzy, we were completely missing the atmospherics — the midnight street market leading up to the food gully, brightly lit with fluorescent tube lights that made the crisp white kurtas look crisper. The symphony of impatient honking under the JJ flyover, the shrill scooters blending with the bass BMWs. Brief suggestions of rose attar on our way to Minara Masjid where the food street officially begins. It's called Ibrahim Mohammed Merchant Road.
There under the streamers of bright fairy lights — Suleiman Sweets, famed for its many flavours of firni, to the right — begins the endless parade of colour and aromas: chicken tikkas in green, red and saffron hanging from the roofs; (which one of us was dying to try) super juicy kebabs with mint and rumaali roti on almost every table, shawarmas, rolls, masala beef nuggets turning golden in a deep dish, dates and dry fruits; all for unbelievably cheap rates.
This is where we entered the crowd. As we broke off from the line and did some asking around, we quickly abandoned the idea of being chaperoned; because everyone was clearly related, and pointed us to this cousin's stall or another’s.
So we picked at random. We started at the stall diagonally outside the Hindustan restaurant, one of the only two that sold khichda, a mild flavoured rice gruel with lentil and beef, with a distinct flavour of caramelised onions and a twist of lime; and one of the few that sold a soupy liver stew (which we thought was Haleem, but wasn't!)
Quite close, was the Hindustan restaurant’s reticent chef, who was frying plate-loads of chotte kababs, unwilling to reveal too much about the secret recipe that had been handed to him by the previous chef, and has been handed down thus for the last 6o years. Close by was another stall that sold the lighter stuff: keema-stuffed naan, chicken rolls and naan sandwich.
But the star dish — the one thing that would make our night — was still eluding us. The rich and creamy nalli nihari, mutton marrow in curry, outside Chinese N Grill, came close. But then we found it. The real show-stealer, cooking on a 2 by 2 cart right there. Bhandoli, a mini pancake made with rice flour, mawa, egg, coconut milk and a sprinkle of sugar that caramelises on the pan. It is a little like the malpua which is richer and heavier, but made with wheat flour. And it costs only 5 rupees.
A regular, waiting for his stack of Bhandolis, told us, "Zubeida Mahmood has been making these for 32 years. There is magic in her hands. I have never had anything like this. " As we wait for our own Bhandoli, he hangs around, eager to give us more information. "I live in Mauritius, but we have always come to Mohammed Ali road every Ramazan just to have this stuff."
"And that guy in the corner," he points to a cart outside Keshodwala Dairy Farm, "has been selling apple juice for 50 years. By the time the crowd really starts kicking in, he has already finished with his stock, and winds up and leaves. He is that famous."
And then it got better. We wouldn't have tried the seemingly unappetising pretzel like shiny things at Mashallah if it were not for the owner's insistence. These Burhanpur jalebis were like gulab jamuns fried three times over and passed through a tube, a must try.
You'd be advised that you haven't done it all till you've had the firni and malpua at Suleiman, the last shop on your way out. Served on earthen platters, the milk and rice pudding meddled with rose essence or with black currents and strawberry, are a visual treat but a little hyped. The strange-looking jalebis win any day.
Tip: Go there on a day you are feeling reasonably centred and ready for the noise and nudges, and incredibly hungry.
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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2011 15:56:14 IST