Tag: food trails & many tales

Food, memories & more…

Masoor dal and jhiri jhiri aloo bhaja (crispy potato fry) that Didun (maternal grandmother) used to make, yummy veg curry with sheem bichi, aloo, begun or kathal bichi bhaja that Dida (paternal grandmother) would cook so often. Mom does make these occasionally, but they just don’t taste the same. She’s a great cook otherwise but no matter how hard she tries she can’t replicate those recipes. Something is lost. The signature dishes that Didun and Dida would make don’t taste the same, as I remember them. Those were pre mobile days, I don’t even have pictures of those dishes .

For food is so much more than ingredients and spices. Our memories of a certain dish, the love and the affection that enveloped them add to the flavour.  That could be the reason why some recipes are lost with a generation or with a person.

With Dida when I was little

The image of Dida sitting before the cooking stove in a white sari in the vegetarian kitchen, chopping veggies and cooking. She would remember what each one of us liked. She usually garnished dal and vegetables with coriander leaves, a flavour that she loved. Since I didn’t like coriander leaves as a girl, a bowl without garnishing would be kept aside for me (much to my dad’s annoyance). We would sit outside the kitchen and watch her as she peeled kathal bichi (jackfruit seeds) or chopped saag. She would dip slices of pumpkin or yam in besan and make them into yummy fries, to be served with dal. If we happened to be around, we would get to sample these fries or daler bora fresh out of the kadai. Often, she would make a fine paste of certain veggies or seeds in the stone mortar (pata pota) – kachu bata, kathal bichi bata, kacha kolar khosha bata. Just kachu bata with hot steamed rice was such a treat. We could finish our meal with her lau moong or sheem bichi sabzi and yummy fries, but she would have none of that. As far as Dida was concerned a meal wasn’t complete without fish. Though I was’t fond of fish them, especially the regular macher jhol, she would sulk if I didn’t have fish.

Dida once loved fish; she couldn’t have a single meal without fish. She was windowed even before my parents got married and as was the practice in those days’ she never touched fish since. Though she would never enter the non-veg kitchen or the dining area she would often stand outside to see if her grandchildren were eating properly. Once while we were being served fish, I asked her how she could watch us eat and not touch something she once loved. “We get used to it didibhai,” she said with a sigh.   

Dadu & Didun

Sundays were meant for weekly visit to Dadur bari (my maternal grandparents place). On our request Didun would make masoor dal and crispy aloo fry. She would often make dhokar dalna or kachur saag. Aloor khosha bhaja and a simple cabbage curry were some of her other signature dishes.  Of course, she would make fish too for her damad that we would rarely eat. The meal would end with amshir chatni (dry mango chutney) that we so relished. Desserts were always homemade – payesh, patishapta or ras bara. When we were little, she even made fuchka (bong gol gappa) and chop for us at home. Her grandkids should not be given unhygienically prepared food from the shops, she would say. She would stuff containers with moorir moya, chirer moya and mishti & nonta nimki for us to snack in the evening.

These are all simple things made from easily available ingredients that somehow don’t taste the same anymore. What mom makes is quite close, but something’s missing, maybe it’s Dida and Didun or my memory of their signature dishes!!

Food trails & many tales: Intriguing flavours of Bohra Thaal

Food does so much more than just satiating our hunger. From a basic need that nurtures life, what we eat and how we eat has become an integral part of our culture and tradition. As civilizations evolved, and looking for food was no longer an everyday struggle, meals, at least on occasions, transformed into an art reflecting the very essence of a community and a region. Every cuisine is blended with history, values that our forefathers held dear and our own memories. Bohra Thaal or Bohri Thaal that offers an aromatic journey through Arab, Yemen and Africa blended with the spices from India, especially Gujarat, is a case in point. A part of Shiitism of Islam called Dawoodi, Bohras or Bohris in India are an affluent community residing mostly in Gujarat and Mumbai. The community is said to have arrived at the port of Cambay in Gujarat, from Egypt via Yemen. Their cuisine, and way it’s presented, canvases their diverse cultural heritage.

Thaal: image courtesy The Bohri Kitchen

Firm believer in the maxim, “The family that eats together, stays together” Bohras eat out of a thaal – one big platter with several dishes spread out that typically accommodates 8 people. “At one time the whole family would share a meal from one thaal, now it’s only during weddings and special occasions,” says my colleague and friend Dinaz who hails from the community.

Thaal is put on a tarakti (an elevated stand) placed on a square piece of cloth called a safra, laid out on the floor. Thaal should not be left unattended, so during a community meal, food is not served till all eight diners are seated. The portions served are just right for eight. Each dish is placed in the centre of the thaal and every member pulls his or her share. “During weddings we sometimes share a thaal with a complete stranger,” says Dinaz.

Image courtesy Indpaedia

“For us it’s very important to have our heads covered and hands washed both before and after the meal. During any festivities or when guests are invited home, once everyone is seated, the host goes around with a chelamchi lota (basin and jug) and washes the guests’ hands,” adds Dinaz.

While researching about this unique style of sharing meals I came across an interesting blog post by Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom. Hailing thaal as the nucleus of Bohra community the post states that this style of eating traces back to the very origin of Islam, exemplifying human equality. The round shape of the thaal is significant as each person who sits around it, is equidistant from the food that is placed in the centre, that would be difficult to achieve in rectangular or square shape dining table.

Thaal is much more than a meal for the Dawoodi Bohra community. Dawoodi Bohras are believed to be an ethnic blend of Arabic, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, African Pakistani and Indian cultures and the cultural diversity is reflected in their exotic cuisines and flavours. “Our food will take you through the streets of Sana’a and Aden and give you an aroma of the Yemeni countryside. It will give you a glimpse of the indigenous rainbow cuisine that colours the streets of Africa, it will walk you through the fragrant Arabic, Persian and Egyptian suqs and snare your palette and back home it will capture the rich spices and tadkas that linger in every corner of India and Pakistan,” states the blog.

There’s something unique about the way Bohra’s serve the food. The meal begins with salt – a taste cleanser that activates all taste buds. “Salt is usually served by the youngest member of group,” says Dinaz. “Interestingly the first course that is served is a dessert, that we call mithaas.” Bohras consider it auspicious to begin their meal with a sweet dish. As they love ice cream it is served first, unless it’s celebration time, when the sodannu (cooked rice with ghee and sugar) comes first. Mithaas is followed by meat preparation called khaaraas or savoury dish.

In Bohra weddings, several courses of kharaas and mithaas are served alternately. On an ordinary day however, one round of starters and two desserts is the norm before the main course, or jaman is served. Jaman can include a meat dish, which is eaten with chapattis or parathas, and a rice dish that could be anything from a biriyani to kaari chaawal to dal chaawal palidu (lentil rice with curry). The usual accompaniment of a raita or soup could also be served with the rice. The jaman ends with another round of dessert. Dry fruits and paan (betel leaves) are a must. Salt is served again at the end of the meal to cleanse their tongues. Bohras believe salt can cure 72 diseases. “The last salt is served by the oldest member of the group,” says Dinaz.

Some signature mithaas are the malida, kharak halwa, thooli to name a few. While khaaraas comprises meat preparations which are fried or roasted rice dishes and more. A good thaal offers a combination of meat and rice.

Popularly served rice dishes are Bohra khichidi, kheema khichidi, Bohra biriyani, and of course dal chawal palidu, that draws on the Bohra’s exposure to Gujarati cuisine. Mughlai dishes like kebabs are also served at Dawoodi Bohra feast.

Bohra Khichda: Image courtesy Pinterest

Bohra khichda, another authentic dish, is a fusion of flavours from the Hyderabad-i halem in which the broken wheat is cooked with meat and lentils. 

Pehli Raat Thaal (New Years’ Eve Feast), served on the first day of Muharram, comes with 28 to 52 dishes. Bohra’s believe this distinctive tradition will ensure abundance in the following year.

Mumbai, home to many Bohras, has restaurants and food joints that have been developed around that concept of Thaal. The Bohri Kitchen (TBK) is the most famous one I am told.  I plan to check out the place when I am in Mumbai next.