Perhaps it is a yearning for childhood innocence, a golden past—real or imagined, I cannot say. Perhaps it is an olfactory whisper that crept through a cranial nerve at the back of my mouth sometime in the 1970s and lodged itself in the temporal lobe, seat of my memory.
Every Ramzan, I cannot help but think of “Didi aunty”, a robust woman, neatly clad in a sari, her hair plaited and a smile that never seemed to leave her, as guests walked in to partake of the feast. Her real name was Anwari Taher, the wife of a garrulous civil servant. “Mumtaz uncle” always held court on a cane chair on the verandah of his bungalow, over which loomed a giant fir tree. The men streamed into the verandah, the women made a beeline for a bedroom inside. “Didi aunty” shuttled between the two worlds, which merged when food came to the table from her wood-fired stove.
Under a soaring roof of red tiles and skylights, we gathered every year for the feast. Usually, we motored down about 600km—which in those days took at least 13 hours—from the ends of Karnataka to be in Bangalore in time for Id. I would eat nothing that day, for I wanted to eat as many of the dense but soft kebabs, the mirchi ka salan, the haleem and the mutton biryani, smoky and steamy and redolent with effort, time and love. I would eat all I could, perhaps four helpings of everything. At the end of it, Didi aunty would bustle in, point to my empty plate and accusingly say in her flowery Dakhni, “Kya ji Samar, khayich nahi. Ettah Id ka khana banaya…(What Samar, you haven’t eaten. I made so much Id food…)
“Lekin, itna khaya Didi aunty.”
But I ate so much.
Yes, I know.
My protestations never had an effect. A fifth helping was inevitable.
My father and Mumtaz had served together sometime in the 1960s in the dry Deccan. Though they came from dramatically different backgrounds—my father a Goan Hindu and Sanskrit scholar; Mumtaz a Hyderabadi Muslim with no knowledge of Kannada—they became friends for life. Later, when Mumtaz’s son would fall in love with his friend’s daughter, a Sindhi Hindu girl, it was my father who would bring Mumtaz around. Didi aunty did not have a problem because she—without being aware of it, despite being religious—stressed friendship and character over religion.
So, Id was certainly about Didi aunty’s great feast, but it was so much more. It was the thrill of journeying across old Mysore state and turning into Serpentine Street in Bangalore’s Richmond Town area, knowing the Tahers’ sanctuary was just around the corner. It was enjoying the characters who swept into the Tahers’ old bungalow—stately old men with canes, well-coiffed matrons with their saris over their heads (hijabs were rare then), poor families collecting food and donations, young men in greased hair and tight pants, roaring in on souped up Standard Herald or Fiat cars and Jawa motorcycles, luminous young women with strong perfumes; Muslims, Anglo-Indians and Hindus; neighbours from down and up the road. It was the easy, value-forming experience of diversity without being aware of such a thing. It was the knowledge that wherever we were in India, we would always return for Id to Didi aunty’s on Serpentine Street. It was a memory that, to my mind, can never be equalled.
I have never really cooked during Ramzan. I never needed to, given the largesse of friends like the Tahers. This year, I realize it is time. I have made biryani only once before—in 1993, in the heart of Missouri, the American Midwest—at the urging of a South African college mate, a Zulu, who grew up in Soweto. He remembered the biryani of home, produced by South African Indians.
I turn to Andaleeb Wajid, a Bangalore writer whose books chronicle middle-class Muslim life. Give me something that can be made in reasonable time without too many complications, I ask, realizing this is the antithesis of the slow cooking over the wood fires of Didi aunty’s house.
But this is a different time, and a different country.
Andaleeb points me to a phaal, a salan, or curry, that is popular during Ramzan. On her blog, appropriately called More Than Just Biryani (she has a book by the same name), she writes: “Just like the butter chicken you probably eat at a restaurant and bring back guiltily in a takeaway container never tastes like the one you attempt to make at home, phaal is one of those salans (curries) that never tastes the same when Ammi makes it and, erm, when I make it. In fact, Ammi’s phaal is different from my mother-in-law’s and it’s hard to believe, but I’ve deduced that it’s all due to a sleight of hand.”
I like sleights of hand. I like the fact that phaals can be what you want them to be. I like the fact that a phaal was one of the mysteries in Andaleeb’s life and is now something she can make in “a jiffy”. You can try my version of Andaleeb’s recipe below. It is lightly flavoured, spicy, low on oil and deeply satisfying.
But what I make is small recompense for my memories of Serpentine Street.
I wander through my neighbourhood to explore the sights and smells of Ramzan. On the main thoroughfare, Madhavaraya Mudaliar Road, you can get everything from “North Indian delicacies” to “Mumbai falooda” to Hyderabadi Pista House haleem and the singular brain puffs of Albert Bakery. There are heaving crowds, smoky fragrances and a great air of fasting, feasting and celebration.
But there is no Didi aunty. She and Mumtaz are dead. Serpentine Street is full of cookie-cutter flats, whose occupants rarely get to know their neighbours. The Tahers’ bungalow is gone. So is the fir tree.
Only the whispers in my mind remain.
Andaleeb’s ‘phaal’(my version)
4 onions, roughly chopped
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 mug, or large fistful,
4 tsp pepper powder
2 tsp garam masala
3 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt, to taste
Clean, wash and drain the mutton of water. Trim excess fat if you wish (I usually don’t).
Grind the cleaned coriander to a paste with onions and tomatoes in a food processor. In a pressure cooker, gently heat olive oil and fry the ginger-garlic paste for a minute. Add the mutton with pepper, garam masala powder, salt and 1 cup of water. Close the cooker, turn heat to high. After the first whistle, turn the heat to low for 15 minutes, or about five whistles. Let the pressure dissipate. If the salan is too thin, thicken over low flame.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking And Other Dubious Adventures.
Also Read | Samar’s previous columns