Bohra food suffers from the two unforgivable shortcomings of our times: poor PR and sloppy packaging. So, no matter that the cuisine is both distinctive and delicious, it performs lousily on the ethnic-chic scale. The very same foodies who are on coconut-and-cardamom terms with Konkani gassis and Chettinad curries have barely heard of masoor-daal gosh pulao and malai khaja. Indeed, the challenges thrown up by an image makeover are enough to daunt the cockiest PRO. For starters, Bohra cuisine is widely believed to comprise a single dish—and the minute a festival or birthday strolls within sight, various Tasneems and Tahirs are confronted with the inevitable, “Don’t forget to bring some biryani for me.” The few eateries that counter this perception are tucked away in Mumbai’s congested mohallas—and even determined seekers of that “tiny joint serving marvellous malpua malai” are discouraged by tales of parking troubles and filched hub-caps.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle in the path of gastronomic glory, however, is the ‘eeks’ factor. For the true Bohra feast—a fabulous procession of hand-churned icecreams, halwas, soups, tandoored chickens and pulaos—is consumed in a thaal. About eight peckish souls sit on the floor along the circumference of a large, flat metal dish that looks a bit like a flying saucer (and is just as alien to most non-Bohras). While they wait expectantly, the first dish is placed in the centre of the thaal and eight eager hands delve in simultaneously. And it is this unwonted sharing of jalebis and germs which most find hard to digest.
Uncomfortable though it may seem, however, this form of communal eating has long held this tiny community together. The approximately one million Bohras are descendants of Gujarati Hindu traders who, influenced by missionaries from Yemen, converted to Islam around the 10th century. Even today, in an age of increasing Islamisation, they have maintained their distinct identity and customs—often referring, without a smidgen of irony, to their brethren in prayer as “those Muslims”. Reluctant to be at the mercy of a temperamental moon, they follow a fixed calendar that ensures that their festivals arrive a day or two before those of the majority of Indian Muslims. Unwilling to don the stern black burqa, their women have adopted a frivolous, colourful version that reduces even formidable matrons to polka-dotted tea-cosies.
More than many Indian Muslims, the Bohras have retained customs from their Hindu past—an attitude that extends to their cuisine and results in extraordinary amalgamations. So chikoli is a sublime non-vegetarian version of dal-dhokli—a Gujarati comfort food in which squares of roti dough are simmered in a spicy dal. Khaloli jazzes up the dahi-and-besan kadhi with plump meatballs. While patrel biryani is achieved by cooking the very vegetarian patra—a popular Gujarati snack made out of colocasia leaves and besan—with mutton and spices.
These delicacies offer an important clue about the most essential ingredient of Bohra food—mutton. Admittedly, the cuisine boasts some unique vegetarian dishes—including a cold baingan bharta made with dahi and spring onion, and a sev ni tarkari in which bhel puri sev is cooked with onions. Not to mention the dish that surfaces whenever TamBrahm relatives-by-marriage are invited to dinner: khuddaal palida, a combination of rice and dal served with a flavourful concoction of dal water, drumsticks, bottle gourd and kokum. Moreover, a reluctant awareness of evils like cholesterol has forced chicken onto the menu, resulting in creations like chicken in a cashewnut or date sauce. But there can be no complete Bohra meal without mutton, a fact that woebegone gout victims and heart patients rue during dreary days of abstinence.
Not that everyday Bohra fare is unhealthy—if anything, it errs on the side of caution. The soupy mutton sarvas served with rice seem devised specifically for invalids with intestinal disorders; and the thicker tarkaris eaten with rotis wear a Diet Edition tag. But come festivals or ramzaan iftaar evenings and prudence is tossed into the wet-garbage bin along with eggshells. For at its most festive, Bohra food is a parade of deep-fried dishes, nutty gravies, fragrant pulaos and malai-rich desserts.
Although dominated by Gujarati and Mughlai techniques, these creations also boast exotic influences. From the bearded pheriwalas who wandered British India selling buttons and powders, to the modest businesses that traded overseas, Bohra merchants often returned from their travels with unfamiliar recipes and ingredients. Which explains why vintage Bohra cookbooks unabashedly include dishes like khaw suey, bride special macaroni bake and jelly souffle without acknowledging the copyright of the cultures that brought them onto the table.
My grandfather’s brothers were based either briefly or permanently in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, while my grandmother was born in Penang and grew up in Singapore. So it seemed only fitting that platters of Karim’s spring rolls— overweight pancakes stuffed with a spicy kheema and fried to lacy perfection by Karim, the master cook—should arrive at the thaal between the kheer and khichda.
While such nouvelle creations are difficult to access, even traditional specialities like kari, a mutton curry with Indonesian overtones, often prove elusive. The couple of Bohra restaurants that tried to ride the trad-food fad downed their shutters soon after excited restaurant reviewers heralded their arrival. And the occasional five-star food festivals rarely venture beyond seekh kabab and biryani. The bhatiyaras—old-style caterers whose aromatic creations hurtle all over the city on handcarts—are gruff souls who scorn orders small enough to squeeze into a Mumbai apartment.
Which brings us back to square one—to sample a seven-course Bohra feast, you have to slip off your shoes and inhibitions, wield your soup-spoon as an instrument of offence and plonk down at a thaal. Be warned, however: once you’ve acquired the precious ‘Fatima weds Saifuddin’ invite, don’t take the easy option. Many a chicken-hearted soul has panicked at the thought of a sneezy, wheezy thaal companion and decided to avail of the offer extended by the father of the bride: “Don’t worry, there is going to be a buffet as well.” It will be much too late to rectify matters when you finally figure out that while you are munching generic butter chicken and gulab jamun, the masticating masses are attacking legs of lamb doused in an almond-and-yoghurt sauce.
Almost as elaborate as the wedding fare is the food served at jamans, large-scale dinner or lunch parties. These elaborate functions require the sort of precision planning more commonly associated with a rocket launch or IIT entrance exam. Well before the guests arrive, the requisite number of thaals are stacked in an invisible corner of the house, alongside rows of bowls filled with the salads, chaats, sauces and pickles that will ring the thaal. In the kitchen the distraught hostess flits around wondering why only five plates of gajar halva have been decorated with nuts and raisins when six thaals are to be served.
As a puddle of footwear forms near the main door, the bustle inside intensifies. While the guests sip on ultra-sweet sherbets or fruit punches, square mats are spread on the floor and weighed down with brass stands upon which the thaal will sit. This prompts a flurry of activity among guests who, at all costs, want to avoid the bores, bronchial patients and gluttons. Even more anxiously avoided are the food dictators—bossy women who, on behalf of the entire thaal, decline the plate of soft cream tikkas, morsels of pounded mutton skewered on wooden sticks and deep fried. Or send back the malai khaja, a flaky pastry stuffed with sweetened malai. “It’s much too heavy, we will never be able to finish it,” they coo, ignoring the glares of their neighbours. “But we wouldn’t mind more carrot salad.”
Once guests have taken their places, the thaals arrive in a solemn procession. Ignoring rules of conventional dining, the Bohras start their meal with a dessert—often a rich halwa. This is followed by fried or tandoored delicacies like kheema samosas, grilled chops or the now endangered brain cutlets.
Next comes another rich sweet—perhaps a warm khaja heaped with crumbly barfi or damido, made by cooking milk and nuts together. Surat is the home of sagla-bagla, a mithai topped with a pastry so light it can be consumed only if the fan is switched off. Mumbai hostesses who live dangerously place their orders with the famous Mohammedi Bakery in Surat and then torment railway inquiry till the precious cargo chugs into the city on the Flying Ranee a mere hour before their lunch do.
Tradition decrees that the hosts and their close relatives serve the guests, and by the time the second dessert is being devoured they are a hot and harried bunch. Often children are posted around the room to ensure that all the macaroni salad and mango chhunda bowls are full and to bring back critical reports like, “That third thaal has almost finished their khaja. But don’t give them more or there won’t be enough for us.”
The ‘mithas’ is followed by another ‘kharas’, something like a full chicken doused in a green, nutty sauce or a dabba gosh, marinated mutton topped with raw egg and cooked preferably on a coal sigri. Dishes like gakhar gosh—a spicy brown mutton served with a glorious, ghee-filled layered roti—are on their way out, but still make the occasional appearance. By this time, even the most oil-friendly souls need some respite—and this usually takes the refreshing shape of an ice-cream or fruit topped with whipped cream. Once the greedier thaals have polished off their second plate of figs and cream, it’s time for the rice dish, often a mutton pulao served with subtle soup, kari and rice or a dal with the mandatory mutton.
There are, of course innumerable variations to this theme. Some toss out the traditional dishes in favour of ‘fancy items’ like pasta bakes. A few sensible souls prune the courses—but most hostesses are determined to force-feed guests. More and more, after the rice dish has been consumed, the thaal is replaced with a clean one bearing a fruit sorbet, nuts, chocolates and paan—and, of course, the card of Bhol, Dilawar, Badri or whichever bhatiyara conjured up the meal.
Smaller parties are sometimes thrown to indulge particular food fetishes. Monsoon evenings often see ‘talans’ at which batches of bhajiyas—ranging from the conventional green chilli and onion to the unusual liver, brain and jaggery—are fried and served fresh to waiting guests. Summer get-togethers sometimes involve ras galas during which aam ras squeezed from different varieties of mangoes are served and volubly compared. While winter witnesses odiferous lasan lunches—during which shoots of tender garlic are chopped fine, mixed into a spicy kheema and topped with raw egg and sizzling hot ghee.
Those who encounter brain bhajiyas for the first time can be forgiven for wondering whether both the community and cuisine are hurtling towards extinction. But this concern is unnecessary. The Bohra community is hale, hearty and bustling with sprightly octogenarians. While the cuisine is gaining new groupies who, in the pursuit of a great meal, are willing to discard sense and sensibilities.