Article: Arunita Datta Photography: Arunita Dutta
Ramadan has always held a special place in my heart as I get to taste my favourite haleem, during Iftar. This year I decided to venture out of the comfort zone of the known South Calcutta locales and head towards the relatively lesser known Central Calcutta instead.
Thus on the penultimate Saturday before Eid ul Fitr my destination was Zakariah Street. It’s predominantly a muslim food street and have been known for the varied items sold during Iftar and Sehri meals. I ventured out on my own that afternoon and reached the colossal gate of The Nakhoda Masjid at the entrance of the street.
After walking down the near empty road, I reached the bustling food hub. All around were stalls that were being readied for Iftar.
As I walked around, surprised eyes were on me as I seemed to be the only woman without a chaperone.
I started enquiring about the different culinary items on display and was treated like a queen, being offered a seat at a phirni stall or guided on the types of bread and what they should be paired with.
On asking for permissions to click pictures, the sellers not only obliged but also suggested what I should focus on. It was a pleasure being received so well by all and sundry.
Food was amazing there. I was spoilt for choice and did not know what to select. There were marinated chicken which were deep fried and served hot along with Iranian Reshedaar haleem to start with. Then there were Dal gosht, Bhuna beef, Chicken masala, variety of kebabs, some ready to be served, some waiting to be placed in the tandoor.
One stall sold Mahi Kebab or marinated rohu fish which would be charcoal grilled just before Iftar started.
Further down were the bread, mewa and the Sewiyan stalls. The main mewa or dry fruits on display were the succulent dates. Near them the bread stalls were selling sweet bread Bakarkhani of Bangladeshi origin, Shirmal bread of Persian origin which could be had with “salan” or any gravy dish, Khasta biscuits and Rusks.
Vermicelli or Sewiyan stalls had mounds of the same, some fried golden brown, some plain, some extremely fine like wisps of cotton, made specially for Sheer Khurma (persian for “milk in dates”), made much like the Bengali “semai er payesh”.Other stalls sold fresh fruits and rose syrup drinks, to break the fast with. Stalls selling sweets were my primary interest and I found steaming hot, freshly made Phirni at one, which caught my attention the most. I was told that the rice had been slow cooked in full fat milk with some sugar, over fire for 3 hrs, giving rise to the rich creamy consistency. It was garnished with slices of red ” karamcha” (Carissa) and slivers of dried coconut.
Shahi Tukra was the other sinful delight, where the bread was deep fried in clarified butter or ghee and served with a generous drizzle of thick sweet, saffron flavoured milk and topped with fried cashews, almonds and pistachios.
It was almost time for Iftar when I found people settling down in their respective stalls, inside hotels and in the expansive courtyard or “Sahn” of Nakhoda Masjid where the congregation was huge. Sharp at 6:30 PM as the Masjid minaret mikes sounded “Allah Hu Akbar…” every person put the first morsel in their mouths and Iftar for that day began. All around was pin drop silence while everyone ate their first meal of the day after sun down. The atmosphere was surreal. Nowhere had I experienced such union and piety among such a huge crowd of people. With that beautiful experience I headed back home, promising myself to return every year at Zakariah Street for Iftar during Ramadan.
Arunita Datta is a teacher by profession with an avid interest in culinary culture of any place under the sun. Cooking and chronicling her efforts and experiences have been one of the most favourite hobbies of her. She loves to collect recipes and tries them out periodically. Good old “adda” sessions with home cooked food is her all time favourite.