The piety bit is obvious, and the politics you can see on your television screens, as netas go to great lengths to attract the attention of their vote banks, either by going to an iftar party or making it a point not to go to one. It is the food, however, that perhaps touches the largest number. Hidden from the rest of the country, some of the best iftar, the meal used to break the fast at sundown, is served in Kolkata.
For the best haleem in the city, the place to visit is Aminia in north Kolkata’s Chitpur neighbourhood. The owner, Navaid Amin, 56, is a mild-mannered man who wears rimless glasses and carries a gold-coloured iPhone 6. He told me his grandfather came here from Awadh in 1929 and started this restaurant. As proof he pointed me to an enormous deg in the kitchen (it could fit in a pony) and claimed that this is the pot his grandfather had started cooking in when he started his business.
The deg isn’t the only historical artefact here. Chitpur is one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods. In fact, it is the oldest non-European part of the city. It came to be a part of Kolkata in 1717, when the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar’s persistent ailments were treated by a British surgeon, Dr Hamilton. His gratitude, further encouraged by a British bribe of £30,000 and a threat to shut down Mughal shipping from Surat, led the Emperor to gift 38 villages around Kolkata to the British, one of which was Chitpur.
As the European part of Kolkata developed to the south, just north of that grew the Indian or “Black Town”, at whose heart lay Chitpur. Rabindranath Tagore stayed here (Chitpur Road is now named after him), as also Raja Rammohan Roy. Nobin Chandra Das, the person who claimed to have invented the rasgulla, first set up shop in Chitpur.
Gauhar Jan also lived here. Unknown today, she was the first artist in India to be recorded, compressing her Hindustani classical compositions into a gramophone-friendly three minutes. Her house, Salim Manzil, still exists on Chitpur Road, a dilapidated pink building, now occupied by squabbling families and shops selling automobile spare parts.
Next to it is the younger, and much better maintained, Nakhoda Masjid, the city’s largest mosque (Indians usually don’t bother about their historical monuments but places of worship are an exception to this rule). Built in 1926 by a Kutchi Memon shipping magnate, its main draw is the gateway, built as a rather poor copy of the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri. As a nod to its financier, "nakhoda" literally means “lord of the ship” or captain.
Facing the mosque is Aminia, where – to get back to the food – I was putting away some of its tasty haleem. Egged on by my reaction, Navaid Amin explained how he put in five dals, darra (cracked wheat) and the best cuts of meat to simmer for hours till everything dissolves into a mash. This recipe was invented by his grandfather and, in a bit of marketing spin, called “Arbi Haleem” (Arabic Haleem).
This is not completely made up. Haleem does have Arab origins. Its ancestor, hareesah, is a simple dish, containing meat, wheat, cinnamon and ghee, popular in Yemen till today as an Iftar staple. It is, in fact, a dish with a long history: the 10th-century Baghdad scribe Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar penned down a recipe for hareesah in the Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). Hareesah is still available in the Arab quarters of Hyderabad, Barkas.
At some indeterminate time, though, Indians decided to upgrade this dish. We added our dals and our masalas, making it far superior, in my opinion, than the bland haressah I ate in Hyderabad.
While the haleem is the king of the iftar spread, the lesser dishes also stand out. A short distance from the Nakhoda mosque area is Zakarai street, the Urdu-ised version of the original “Jacquaria” street. This area, the Muslim pocket of Chitpur, has such a long history of migration from Awadh that these Urdu Hobson-Jobsons have become as good as official (a small bit of revenge for the mangling of Indian names by the British).
The Zakaria Street area was the second hub of the Awadhis who came to Kolkata when it was the second city of the Empire, the first being Metiabruj, the exiled home of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Ironically, Kolkata has always been home to far more Urdu-speaking Muslims than Bengali-speaking ones. The latter is a rural community and as Salman Rushdie explained, “The distance between cities is always small; a villager, travelling a hundred miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space.”
With these migrants came their food. The Zakaria Street area is the original hub of Mughlai cuisine in Kolkata. It has the city’s best biryani joint, the 110-year old Royal Indian Hotel, which was snotty – and brave – enough to leave out the potato from its biryani, almost the only place in Kolkata to do so. Kolkata biryani, while an almost perfect copy of the Lucknow one, has one big difference (and, dare I say, improvement): it contains the aloo.
Apocryphally, this was introduced by Wajid Ali Shah’s cooks, as a partial replacement for the more expensive goat meat, as the nawab struggled to make ends meet after being deposed. More probably, it was a simple matter of fusion, since Bengal loves its potato; it is difficult to imagine a Bengali meal without it. Adding it to the biryani, where it would perfectly absorb the spices from the rice and the meat, was a no-brainer.
Pakodas, fruit and ghoogni
At Aminia as well as in the next-door joint, Sufia, since the haleem had run out, quite a few people were making do with the biryani for iftar, although it is an unusual choice to break your fast. More conventionally, people eat pakodas, fruit and ghoogni (black gram).
At the Haji Alauddin sweet shop in Chuna Gali (Phears Lane), mutton and chicken somasas did brisk business half an hour before iftar. Founded in 1915, again by a migrant from Awadh, it is now manned by the great grandson of Mr Alauddin, Ijaz Ahmed. It also has a variety of mawa-based North Indian sweets, rare in a city whose strong tradition of Bengali confectionary uses chhena as a base. Also sold there is the Khajla, a fried, hollow bread which is crumbled and eaten like cereal with hot milk usually for the pre-fast sehri meal.
Outside Alauddin, sold by a vendor, are the more humble but far tastier beef samosas and also, since Eid is close by, a seviyan stall. A bit further off, on a road named after the Khilafat leader, Maulana Shaukat Ali, are bread stalls, stocking baqarkhanis and sheermals.
I’ve grown up seeing baqarkhanis being eaten but never as “Mughlai” food. My grandmother’s Anglo-Indian neighbours would eat “backer-can-eez” for breakfast, often pairing it with a delicious smoked cheese introduced to Bengal by the Portuguese, called Bandel cheese (Bandel was a Portuguese settlement and is around two hours from Kolkata). Baqarkhanis came in from north India to Bengal and then entered Anglo-Indian cuisine.
The last stop was probably the best of the lot. Kolkata makes some amazing Mughlai curries and biryani but it really doesn’t pull off a good kabab. The one exception to that is Adam’s Kabab, a little way from Haji Alauddin’s. Here Mohammed Salahuddin (Sallu to his friends) makes the sutli kabab, so called because the beef is ground so fine, it has to be held up by a soota (thread) while being grilled. The secret to this is unripe papaya, an excellent meat tenderiser, mixed in with the mince along with spices and left to marinate.
The only other place I’ve had sootli kababs is in Old Delhi. There, in the Matia Mahal area, past the overrated Karim’s, is the oddly named Kale Baba ke Kebabs. As in most Mughlai food though, the colonial melting deg of Kolkata steals a march over once-upon-a-time-Mughal Delhi.
I would like to thank Calcutta Walks for its help in exploring Chitpur.
The Khajla. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
Sutli kabab. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
Mutton samosas at Haji Alauddin. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
The biryani at Aminia's. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
Bottled Roohafza, ready to go. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
Bakarkhanis and sheermals. Credit: Shoaib Danyal