Eid feasts in India go beyond biryani and sevaiyan to reveal a composite food culture that privileges regional tastes over religion. Lounge samples specialities from four corners of the country
Culinary conversations around Eid, which is being celebrated this weekend, are almost always dominated by paeans in praise of fragrant Eid ki biryani and sevaiyan. There can be no doubt that these are festive favourites but they are not as ubiquitous as you might believe. For instance, if you walk into a Kashmiri Muslim home on Eid looking for a plateful of biryani, you are likely to be disappointed. But there will be luscious lamb korma, roganjosh and yakhni, and you will perhaps be slightly mortified at your ignorance.
For most people, the understanding of Indian Muslim food in general is based on narratives of the opulent cuisines that evolved in the royal kitchens of the subcontinent’s Muslim dynasties, especially the Mughal kitchen with its strong Persian influence. This is partly because such court cuisines have been meticulously recorded. Food cooked in regular households across the country has generally been overlooked, with little documentation in place. But here’s the thing: Mughlai food is not Muslim food.
In fact, the very term “Muslim food" is problematic and insular. The kind of homogeneity attributed to what is termed Muslim food in India dismisses regional diversity and socioeconomic context. But a deeper exploration of Eid cuisine reveals that we have a composite food culture which has less to do with religion and more to do with regional tastes.
Here’s a look at Eid tables from four regions of the country. You might find it difficult to spot the biryani.
‘RICE AND FISH ARE AT THE HEART OF THE KOKANI MUSLIM KITCHEN’
Amajority of Kokani Muslims trace their ancestry to Arab merchants who arrived in the region over a millennium ago, married local women and settled along the Konkan coast. Kokani cuisine is a blend of coastal Maharashtrian flavours and Middle Eastern influences, fortified by local produce.
“We are first coastal people. Rice and fish are at the heart of the Kokani Muslim kitchen," says Saher Khanzada, who has been documenting the food she grew up on, on her blog The Bombay Glutton. “But what perhaps sets our cuisine apart is the prolific and profuse use of coconut in various forms," says Khanzada. Meat, especially goat, is reserved for special occasions. So, come Eid, meat takes centre stage. Don’t, however, expect mutton biryani.
“Our Eid spread is quite unlike any other in the country," says Khanzada, who fondly remembers Eid spreads comprising the sandan (steamed rice cakes) and mutton curry. Food historian Mohsina Mukadam, an authority on her community’s cuisine, concurs. “Sandan are mildly sweet, steamed buns made with a yeast-fermented batter of rice and coconut that would typically be served with chicken or mutton salna (usually referred to as salan)," she says.
A sweeter version of these fluffy, pristine white disc-shaped buns is also made on special occasions. “Usually, the womenfolk would be up all night preparing sandan for Eid next day. Should a new son-in-law of the house be visiting for his first Eid, heart-shaped sandan, sometimes topped with a pinch of saffron, would be made to impress him," she adds. However, sandan is not exclusive to the Kokani Muslim kitchen—it’s a regional delicacy. Rasachandrika, Ambabi Samshi’s iconic Saraswat cookery book, published in 1943, has not one but two recipes for these buns, one sweet and the other spicy.
“Making sandan is a painstaking process and these days most people shy away from making them," says Khanzada. Instead, the spiced curries are paired with a light pulao or baghare rice (tempered rice).
Mumbai-based restaurateur Rafid Fakih focuses on the sweeter side of the Kokani Eid. In addition to Eid desserts like the sheer khurma and sevaiyan typically served for breakfast, there are sweet dishes like ratalu ka meetha, purple yam cooked with coconut milk, milk solids, sugar and ghee, and kele ka meetha—ripe bananas cooked with saffron, cardamom, sugar and ghee, with or without milk. “Another Eid special dessert is made with bottle gourd, which is cut in big chunks and fried in desi ghee, before being cooked in coconut milk with sugar. Sometimes dried fruits are also added," adds Mukadam. Interestingly, Mukadam points out, Kokani Muslims who migrated to South Africa (over a century ago) still make traditional Maharashtrian items like karanji (pastries with coconut filling), usually associated with Diwali, on Eid.
‘IN MOST RAVUTHAR HOMES, BIRYANI WOULD TYPICALLY BE ACCOMPANIED BY DALCHA-SAMBHAR COOKED WITH MUTTON BONES AND FAT’
Eid must-haves: Thakkadi, dalcha-sambhar
The cuisine of the Tamil-speaking Ravuthar Muslims, in parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, is a cornucopia of rich flavours and ingredients. The Ravuthars, mostly a business community today, are historically said to have been elite cavalrymen and horse traders who came from Turkey and the Middle East.
“They first came to Rajasthan and then migrated down south, where they married local women and settled in the bordering regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala," says Hazeena Seyad, who has documented hundreds of Ravuthar recipes in her blog, Saute Fry N Bake, and book, Ravuthar Recipes: With A Pinch Of Love. “The history of the Ravuthar community is a history of migration, which means that our food displays a motley mix of culinary influences," she adds. Over the centuries, in fact, the Ravuthar Muslims travelled to countries like Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, seeking their fortunes in trade, bringing back food stories that would eventually find their way into Ravuthar kitchens.
One such dish is the thakkadi, a one-pot dish where dumplings made with a mix of rice flour and coconut and specked with finely chopped chillies, onions and sometimes fresh coriander, are poached in mutton broth and added to spicy mutton curry. It is quite similar to the Sri Lankan dish of the same name.
“The dish seems to have travelled with Ravuthar men who would travel to Sri Lanka on business," says Seyad. On Eid, breakfast at many homes comprises comforting bowls of thakkadi. Seyad insists on coarsely pounded rice flour for the perfect dumplings and her mutton curry is a hearty dish made with aromatic spices, coconut milk and poppy seeds. The recipe, she says, is over two centuries old.
Lunch is more elaborate. The Ravuthar-style biryani, traditionally made with the short-grained Jeera Samba rice, might be the cynosure of the spread but the mandatory accompaniments are no less interesting. “In most Ravuthar homes, the biryani would typically be accompanied by dalcha-sambhar cooked with mutton bones and fat; a halwa-like meetha made with any one of the following ingredients: white pumpkin, raw papaya, beetroot, tomato or pineapple; onion raita; and boiled eggs," says Seyad.
‘IF THERE’S ONE DISH THAT I HAVE ALWAYS EATEN AT AN EID FEAST IN BHOPAL, IT IS THE DAHI VADA’
Eid must-haves: Bhopali shami, yakhni pulao and gosht korma , dahi vada
Bhopalis don’t shy away from putting vegetarian dishes on their festive table. While others flock to meat-laden biryanis and pulaos, a Bhopali will perhaps relish a lightly flavoured qabuli (chana dal pulao) or a simple kuska just as much. “In fact, if there’s one dish that I have always eaten at an Eid feast in Bhopal, it is the dahi vada," says food researcher Ruchi Shrivastava, who grew up in that city. She sees this as testimony to the inclusive nature of celebrations there. “Putting vegetarian dishes on the Eid table also ensured that everyone, including guests who were vegetarian, could partake in the celebratory meal," she says.
It should be mentioned here that a distinct nawabi cuisine also thrived in the often-overlooked royal kitchens of Bhopal. As food writer Charmaine O’Brien observed in The Penguin Food Guide To India (2013), the royal cooks of Bhopal took inspiration from the Mughal matbakh (kitchen) but were encouraged to come up with their own creations.“But Bhopal’s food is not pompous," says Sikander Mali, the founder of Bhopal Heritage Walks and a culinary enthusiast. It is instead quietly graceful yet distinctive, and boasts of splendid variety. “The food is much lighter than Lucknowi or Hyderabadi food and while Mughal influence is prominent, Bhopali food has over time picked up whiffs and whispers from the Afghans, the Turks and the French who came to the region." In other words, Bhopal’s food is cosmopolitan in essence.
One of the distinct features of Bhopal’s eating culture is perhaps its preoccupation with digestion, which manifests in the restrained use of spices in its food, kababs stuffed with kachumbar (finely chopped onions, tomatoes, chillies, or even raw mangoes in summer) to add roughage, for instance. “While meat is appreciated, a lot of local greens and vegetables like methi, kulfa, bathua as also patharchatta and jungle jalebi, known for their medicinal benefits, are also eaten," says Malik. Besides, there’s meat cooked with vegetables like bitter gourd, turnip and other greens
The verdant Bhopali rizala, distinguished by the green colour that comes from fresh coriander leaves, is perhaps the city’s best-known culinary offering—but there’s much more to Bhopali food.
On Eid, Malik says, tables are laid out with a vast array of dishes, ranging from Bhopali shami stuffed with finely chopped kachumbar, keeme ke samose, andey ke bhajiye, sukhi boti and pasande to parcheand galawati kababs, the size of carrom coins. “You may also spot cold salads, mashed potatoes and roasts," he adds. But such dishes are more likely to appear on the tables of the more affluent.
“In Bhopal, however, it’s not biryani but flavourful pulaos, paired with dishes like khade masale ka gosht and luxurious kormas, that enjoy the spotlight," says Shrivastava. The popular favourite is the Bhopali yakhni pulao, relatively light but flavourful pulao cooked in meat broth.
‘...NO ONE NARRATIVE...CAN FULLY ILLUSTRATE THE QUINTESSENTIAL ASSAMESE EID SPREAD’
Eid must-haves: Korma pulao, sondesh, meat loaves
Assam’s sociocultural tapestry is both rich and layered, yet cohesive. This is reflected in the state’s culinary traditions too—and the Assamese Eid spread is no exception.
“While quintessential Mughlai-influenced dishes like kormas, kababs and rizalas, albeit lighter versions adapted to the local palate, are often part of Eid spreads in Assam, there is no one narrative that can fully illustrate the quintessential Assamese Eid spread," says media professional and gastronome Sarwar Borah. “In many families, something as simple as a turmeric-tinged chicken curry with bottle gourd and potatoes, and spicy beef curries can also find a spot on the Eid table" says Borah. “Again, in the villages one might find more rustic duck curries or perhaps a focus on a range of sweet and savoury pitha (steamed or fried rice cakes with sweet or savoury stuffing)," he adds.
While the Mughlai influence in Assamese food may be traced back to the Mughals who invaded the region in the 1600s, there are numerous other strands of influence that have intertwined with the region’s indigenous food traditions.
In Upper Assam, which has tea gardens, you could even spot some British influences in local food habits, says Borah. This perhaps explains why some Eid tables would include a hearty stew or serve up some delightful meat loaf, or even caramel custard, popular locally as boiled pudding. “In fact, in many Assamese Muslim families of the region, cakes are made with more enthusiasm on Eid than sevaiyan," says Borah. Similarly, the Eid spread of the Bengali-speaking Assamese of Barak Valley, close to the Bangladesh border, may demonstrate a certain degree of cross-border exchange of culinary ideas.
A particularly interesting Eid must-have in the Barak Valley region is sondesh, which is nothing like the milk-based sweets that Bengalis in Bengal would identify the word with. “Our sondesh is made with ground rice, which is lightly sautéed and then kneaded into a dough," says Silchar resident and culinary enthusiast Nasima Choudhury. “The dough is then stuffed with sweetened coconut, given decorative shapes and steamed," she adds. A savoury, deep-fried version of the sondesh made with rice or whole wheat flour and semolina dough flavoured with onions, ginger, garlic and chilli, alternatively called moshla furi, is also made. The region’s Muslim homes also make fob, a pastry of sorts stuffed with sweet filling," says Choudhury. Also known as bakul pitha, these pastries are just as popular during the festivals of Bihu and Sankranti.
However, the star of the Assamese Eid spread is perhaps the korma pulao, which has emerged as a poster boy of Assamese Muslim food. The one-pot dish is made with the aromatic, sticky Joha rice which is braised with caramelized onions, meat, ideally beef, and aromatic spices and cooked in robust beef stock. “The korma pulao is made not only on Eid but for other celebratory meals too, especially when there are more people to feed," says Borah. A similar dish in the Barak Valley region is known as akhnipulao, Choudhury adds.