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Dates, fruits and home-made samosas stuffed with soya keema, washed down with fresh watermelon juice. This was Day 1 of iftar at Shabana Salauddin’s home in Mumbai. In a pre-lockdown scenario, the samosa filling would have been minced meat and they would have welcomed neighbours, friends and extended family to partake of this meal.

Salauddin is the co-owner of the home-chef venture Ammeez Kitchen that serves Konkani Muslim cuisine. During Ramzan, if the brand’s social media followers express an interest in sampling the iftar food, they receive a free invitation. So, on the brand’s YouTube page, Salauddin shared a detailed and tempting recipe of chapli kebab with soya nuggets to retain the chewy texture of meat. In the absence of meat fat that binds the kebabs, she used gram flour, ghee and paneer.

During Ramzan, the kitchen becomes a playground for food experiments and the lockdown is testing her creativity. “Our masalas are so good, we can change the taste of anything, even potatoes," she says, referring to spice blends like green masala and their family’s heirloom masalamix. While she is tight-lipped about the latter, the green masala is a deceptively simple mix of fresh ginger, garlic, green chilli, coriander and whole cumin ground in a stone grinder, never the blender. No prizes for guessing whether this masala was used in the chapli kebab.

‘Ananas Zarda’ from Ammeez Kitchen
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‘Ananas Zarda’ from Ammeez Kitchen

Fruits form an integral part of the iftar menu and Salauddin notes the non-availability of pineapple, plums and peaches. Konkani Muslims have a sweetish rice speciality called zarda with pineapple pieces. This time, Salauddin’s family will have to forego it. Even though their kitchen has a wide variety of home-made masalas, papads and pickles, they are using their stock sparingly “because we really don’t know what will happen".

For those who consider soya a last resort, chicken is today the meat of choice. In Lucknow, Gul Ali’s family recreated the city’s famed shami and seekh kebabs with chicken for iftar. Ali runs a home-chef business in Gurugram, Gul’s Kitchen, which serves Lucknawi Mughlai food. She was visiting her family in Lucknow when the lockdown was imposed.

Today mutton is available only in small pockets of the city, she says. So they are making do with chicken for shami and seekh kebabs. Chicken has supplanted mutton in nihari too.

Things are no different in Bengaluru. Himayath Khan, founder of the Afghani-Pakistani home-dining experience, Ghiza Kitchen, is missing quality mutton. He ordered online but was disappointed with what arrived—mostly bones with scanty flesh. “There’s nothing like shopping for meat in person," he says.

Food spread at an inter-faith iftar party in 2019. Credit: Shahla Ahmed.
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Food spread at an inter-faith iftar party in 2019. Credit: Shahla Ahmed.

So they break their fast in the evening with dry chicken-based items like Murg Ki Kalli, Khoshaal Kampli (he calls them Happy Blankets) or Charsi Tikka. The first is chicken and cheese stuffed in large green chillies, the second is a Pakistani deep-fried snack akin to a samosa with a chicken or mutton keemafilling and the third is juicy chicken legs.

But the primary ingredient missing from the iftar food experience is people. Khan longs to invite guests-turned-friends, Ali misses the inter-faith iftar and Salauddin craves community sharing. Delhi-based author Sadia Dehlvi says “one sees it as another test from God; what we call azmaish". Sharing food with family, the community and those with lesser means is one of the pillars of the Ramzan food experience.

Every Ramzan, Delhi-based historian and author Rana Safvi posts recipes on her website Ranasafvi.com with the slug ‘Dastarkhwan e Ramzan’. This year, historical anecdotes have replaced those recipes. To uphold the spirit of giving, Safvi , who says she has “not even bothered to get meat this year" plans to distribute food to those in need through the initiative Iftar4All. It was founded about two years ago by Supreme Court advocate Anas Siddiqui. While it began with free distribution, be it biryani or groceries, in hospitals and shelters, this year they will share food among healthcare professionals and sanitation workers. They also plan to assemble and donate dry ration packages with flour, rice, pulses and soap for migrant workers.

They have chapters across India, from metros like Delhi and Mumbai to smaller cities like Varanasi and Ranchi, even districts like Barpeta in Assam. When Lounge spoke to Siddiqui on 26 April, he was trying to work on a similar model in New York. Within India, they were “trying to figure out" ways of partnering with Zomato and Swiggy to distribute food.

Usually, their donors are friends and family, and they have partnered with the theatre group Wings Cultural Society in Delhi.

Safvi is also part of an initiative known as inter-faith iftar. It was started by writer Nazia Erum, who posted a Facebook invitation in 2017 for those who had never been to a Muslim home for iftar. About 90 non-Muslims responded, far exceeding her expectations. With every year, the numbers grew and the organizing committee started chapters in different places, not just Mumbai and Delhi but smaller cities like Dehradun and Guwahati, with menus featuring mainstays like fruit chaat, pakoras, chana fry, Rooh Afza and even regional biryanis and pulao.

“It was like a chain reaction. Is baar raunak chali gayee hai (this time, the lustre is missing)," she rues. Erum might organize Zoom conferences to talk about the significance of food in Ramzan.

On a late evening this week, my phone buzzed with a heartening message from Shahla Ahmed. She is one of the home chefs involved in organizing the food for inter-faith iftar gatherings in Delhi. It read, “Hopefully, the lockdown is lifted soon and we can organize this year’s inter-faith Iftar. Inshaallah, I will invite you then."

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