The November of 2001. For the first time, Ramazan up close, and personal.
It began slowly, with S fasting during exams and going off to pray in the middle of evening tea. A little later came the small dabbas that S's mother sent back to the hostel. Three of us would huddle around a light blue box, drowning in the rich and varied tastes of her home, jostling each other's fingers for favourite bits. Still later was the feast that the entire family brought to campus in time for Iftar. Baskets of egg samosas and assorted kababs, each dabba within filled with some of the most incredible food I've ever had the pleasure of.
And yet, nothing could have prepared me for the delights of the Old City. This particular jaunt was a few nights from going home for the winter. Well past midnight by the time we got past the purana pul but with the screaming waiters outside each little shop, the lights, the traffic, you'd be convinced otherwise. Even the sleepy textile shops that usually shut by 7:30 p.m. were still loudly displaying their garish wares. Come to think of it, it's the only time I've ever seen Hyderabad on the go!
That night, from the chaos of Charminar came one of the most brilliant gastronomic experiences of my life.
Haleem. That most delightful of the riches of Ramazan. I've never eaten something like it and I don't think I will either. No idea what I'm frothing at mouth about? Well, it's broken wheat, meat (usually mutton), some dal, spices, and whole lot of ghee, slow-cooked the entire day in a bhatti, ready in time for Iftar. The resultant gooey, gelatinous, porridge-like mouthfuls, topped with fried onion and a wedge of lime, are amongst the closest one can get to culinary nirvana... ever. Nayab at Pathargatti, Miskin and Shadaab in the Old City proper - there are absolutely no better places for haleem. I know - I tried them all!
From the rosy hues of memory, haleem stands strongest and most beloved. But in fairness, there was some other fantastic food too. The nahari and warm sheermal at Miskin, behind Medina Hotel, is the best I've ever had. Miskin also serves a delicious paya. A novel and perhaps surprising experience, because I saw trotters in the paya for the first time. Actually hanging out of the ladle in the handi. Certainly, I was laughed at - amid choking laughter and polite sniggers, I was asked "Why else would it be called paya then?" How would I know?! In Bombay, it's just the greasy soup, thank you very much!
It's been six years since I was last in Hyderabad for Ramazan. Six years since the taste of paradise upon my lips. Six years, I assure you, is a long, long time. So after reading the last issue of Time Out Mumbai and its piece on the feasts of Ramazan, Bombay style, AND where to get haleem in this city, I plan to set out adventuring in Mahim and Mohammed Ali Road. Tonight.
Wish me luck!