As the muezzin calls out for the Maghrib prayer, Mahajabeen Sheikh rushes into her room for the last namaz before breaking her day-long Ramzan fast. She silently beseeches Allah for the good health of her children and the 50 boisterous youngsters who are about to join her for iftar, the meal Muslims eat to end their fast.
Sheikh, 55, is a food entrepreneur and a home chef who runs her catering business, Zawaqa, in Bengaluru’s Kammanahalli neighbourhood. A large number of students from Arab countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Palestine reside here. Most come to Bengaluru for spoken English courses. A longing for Arabian food pulls them to Sheikh’s home at least three to four times a week.
An expert in Arabian cuisine, Bengaluru-born Sheikh, who has lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for 26 years, never fails to welcome her guests, whatever the time of the day or night. During Ramzan, the boys regularly visit Sheikh’s home for iftar, where neatly packed parcels filled with juice, fruits, dates, samosas, chicken and shaboot, a Yemeni yogurt salad, await them.
They return a few hours later after midnight, this time in swollen numbers, to fill themselves up with their pre-dawn goodies before beginning their fast at daybreak.
“Instead of carrying home their meals, the boys prefer to sit and eat their sehri together with friends, like they do at home with family,” says Sheikh.
Between mouthfuls of sumptuous food and friendly banter, they also sip hot mint tea that she makes. Typically, Ramzan meals are relished together with family, but for these boys, their only kinfolk in India are mates from their country and of course, Sheikh, who serves them finger-licking food.
Sheikh is part of a growing tribe of Muslim women selling home-style food. The home chefs freshly cooked meals are picked up or home-delivered throughout the year, but there’s a marked boost in sales during Ramzan, when new items are added to their menu, usually missing during the rest of the year.
Ramzan began on 27 May in India, and until Eid-ul-Fitr (25 or 26 June), many of the country’s 172 million Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk. So will the home chefs running successful catering businesses. Fasting can be exacting and draining, but it doesn’t diminish their dedication for their work, which involves cooking for long hours in the kitchen despite rumbling stomachs.
“My deep passion for cooking motivates me,” says Farida Kutianawala, the woman behind The Big Spread, a Bohri food delivery service that runs out of her Byculla home in Mumbai.
Born and bred in Indore, Kutianawala, now 49, experimented with cooking as a teenager and attended many culinary classes. After marriage, with her mother-in-law’s encouragement and support from her young children, she started taking small orders for family and friends.
A decade into the informal business, her children—who had grown up into twenty-somethings—encouraged her to share her culinary skills with Mumbaikars waiting to discover Bohri cuisine. The Big Spread was born in the winter of 2014 with the intention of serving Bohri iftar thaals, a relatively new concept in Mumbai three years ago.
Shabeena Naseem never referred to a recipe book all her life. Yet, growing up in Lucknow, she learnt the best Awadhi dishes as a little girl from her mother. Her mother-in-law was quite impressed with her cooking when she met her potential daughter-in-law for the first time.
Twenty years ago, Naseem launched Shabeena Naseem’s Kitchen in Delhi, to provide mouth-watering Awadhi biryani and kebabs to her hungry customers. It wasn’t easy taking care of two ailing in-laws and three young children together with a business that requires constant work in the kitchen, but Naseem hasn’t let anything affect her dedication.
“My work gives me a lot of happiness,” says the 58-year-old. “Even today, I love to stand in the kitchen and cook for a few orders myself.”
Fresh meat, masalas ground at home, hygienic preparation and a personal twist are a few vital ingredients of the fare these women serve. Mumbai-based Antara Gupta, who often orders food from home chefs for celebrations at her multinational company, feels that fixed menus at restaurants are passé.
“If you want a biryani, they just have a few usual suspects that are done and overdone,” she says.
These home-run businesses that focus on regional fare offer an opportunity to experiment with novel cuisine. At a home set-up, it is also easy to get made-to-order meals.
Over the years, Naseem has earned herself a name in Delhi, so people come looking for her from far afield. Her south Delhi kitchen begets clients from Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad, apart from the rest of Delhi. “Many of them also carry my food abroad,” she says.
Arshi Ahmed is a homemaker from Delhi who regularly orders shami kebabs, biryani and phirni from Naseem’s kitchen. Being a Muslim, she likes to add a few additional snacks for iftar to what she usually cooks for her guests at home.
“Mrs Naseem prepares typically Muslim home-style food, high on quality and quantity,” Ahmed says. “I can sense the flavour of spices in her food.”
Rita Kathuria, a Delhi-based freelance designer, agrees. “Biryanis from different states are supposed to have diverse flavours and Shabeena’s biryani has a strong Awadhi taste,” she says.
Kutianawala’s customers love the nalli nihari, haleem and bheja cutlets she cooks for iftar. Mumbai-based businessman Akshay Shetty is a big fan of the mutton raan she makes. “Restaurants in Mumbai serve only Mughlai raan, not Bohri raan,” he says.
“Running a successful business requires great food quality,” says Kutianawala. “For me, the biggest challenge is to win people with great taste. It’s important that my clients are completely satisfied with what they eat.”
Sheikh in Bengaluru shares a special bond with her student clients. They call her Umm Omar, or Omar’s mum, a respectful way to address a lady in Arab countries. Abdullah Hasan Abdulrahman, a student from Yafa, Yemen, regularly enjoys all meals, including the sehris, at Sheikh’s home. “Umm Omar’s food and culture are quite similar to mine,” he says.
“She is generous. She gives us a lot of food at a modest price,” says Ahmed Alfadhli from Dhamar, Yemen. He first had Sheikh’s food only a couple of months ago, and yet feels comfortable with her. “She is friendly and I feel like I’ve known her for a long time,” he says. “She seems to understand the problems of Arab students quite well.”
During Ramzan, when food streets in cities are humming and throbbing with samosas and meat sold at wayside stalls, many still opt for the freshly cooked, hygienic food of home chefs. “Food streets have a great vibe and are good for those who don’t get to eat that kind of food often,” says Thakur.
But they are filthy and overcrowded as well, he feels. “The meat served there could also be dicey,” says Shetty.
During Ramzan, Kutianawala, who usually does Bohri thaals on weekends, opens up her doors on weekdays too. Her doorbell never stops ringing. She is occupied most days, serving iftari thaals either at her home or at her clients’.
Naseem’s iftar snacks sell well, but she finds more orders during the winter, particularly from her non-Muslim clients, so when Ramzan falls in the summer, like this year, her business slows down a bit. It’s probably the Delhi heat, she says. “People prefer to throw parties in the winter months.”
Sheikh has kept her rates for iftar meals lower than the rest of the market, leaving her with little in the way of profit during Ramzan. But she doesn’t mind that at all.
“For us Ramzan is a pious and special month,” she says. In fact, she always keeps an extra dish or two ready in her kitchen for the boys who come for iftar and sehri. “Youngsters always tend to ask for something extra,” she says.
The home chefs' work gives them the independence that a lot of women aspire for. Naseem always has enough money to spend on her children, while Sheikh is saving to open a restaurant in Bengaluru.
But none of them could have done it without their family’s support. Naseem’s two daughters help her in the kitchen on weekends. Sheikh’s daughter has come down from Dubai to help her handle extra orders during Ramzan. Kutianawala’s entire family works with her. Her husband Yunus handles her shopping and accounts while daughter Fatema is her PR agent and takes care of all orders. Murtuza, her son, helps in marketing.
“I’m only looking after my kitchen,” she says. “I can run this business only because my family stands beside me,” she adds.
Sheikh’s family advises her not to work too hard anymore. “But it’s my passion for cooking and the affection for the boys that keeps me going,” she says. “My son is working abroad. I hope that Allah will send someone like me for him, whenever he is in need of food in a foreign country.”
Priti Salian is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist who has written for The Guardian, CNN.com and Al Jazeera, among others. Check out her work atwww.pritisalian.com.
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