City Hangout – Ramzan Lights, Zakir Nagar
Fasting, shopping, feasting.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The noons are lazy, the midnights joyful.
It is Ramzan, the holy month in which the Quran was sent down from heaven. To purify their inner and outer selves, Muslims abstain from bad thoughts, speech and actions. And also from food and water during the day.
The fast, or roza as it is called, ends every evening after the Maghrib prayers when friends and families sit together in homes, mosques and dargahs to have iftari, the day’s first meal. It usually consists of dates, fruits, sharbats and rose water. More elaborate meals are taken later in the night; both at home and at restaurants and stalls.
During this period, Muslim neighbourhoods become prime culinary destinations. In Bombay, there’s Mohammed Ali Road, in Calcutta, Park Circus, in Hyderabad, Charminar, and in Bangalore, Shivaji Nagar.
Ramzan nights in Old Delhi, or the Walled City, have been idealized for their anarchic grandeur, both in photographs and poetic renditions. Strung with fairy lights, sevai (vermicelli) stalls, kebab shacks, shahi tukda kiosks and biryani joints compete for customers, along with denim showrooms and burqa boutiques. Jama Masjid, built by Shahjahan in 1650, is possibly the best background prop one can have, adding much to the aesthetic of the various kinds of food and drink.
But to sample the simplicity of this season of reflection and revelry, The Delhi Walla visited Zakir Nagar in south Delhi, close to the Yamuna river. Situated near Jamia Millia Islamia and home to many who used to live in the Walled City, it is a little different from Old Delhi.
The streets are wider, there is less traffic, and less chaos. The area’s Jama Masjid (a wide term for Friday mosque) is austere. Fortunately, the essentials are the same.
Men are dressed traditionally, in kurta pajama and topis; the street food is similarly delicious and cheap.
The stall of Shahi Kheer outside the Jama Masjid fills up with people as soon as tarabi – the evening’s special prayer – ends by half past ten. Sitting at the same place for more than a decade, Mohammed Ashraf’s dessert is thick, creamy and a little yellow, because of the kesar flavour. After ladling the rice kheer into the glass, Mr Ashraf adds a scoop of rabri, a spoon of angoor sherbet and top the mix with crushed ice. The chilled concoction sends you on a sugar high for the rest of the night.
Sold at a shack opposite the Old Delhi Nihari Hotel, crisp kebabs are mashed, spread out on the paratha, and served as a roll. The channa dal in the kebab mixture sobers the spikiness of the spices, and its crumbliness balances the paratha’s ghee-soaked sliminess.
Madina Hotel’s oily chicken biryani steams in an extra-large cauldron that is fitted into a hot water vessel. This place also serves buttery nihari.
Since Zakir Nagar has no historical monument, the great buildings are only seen in the Purani Dilli restaurant, the walls of which have framed photographs of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Staffed with stewards dressed in blue jeans, brown kurtas and white topis, the restaurant’s haleem has been celebrated in food channels, city magazines and food blogs.
Qayyum Chai walla’s establishment is a hall with yellow benches and white tables, which are rarely empty during the ramzan nights. The brew is neither milky, nor sweet — the combination popular in Old Delhi. The shop uses 30 liters of milk every night; it remains open till 3.45 am.
Soaked in milk and eaten, the thick, flaky and sugary khajla is a deep-fried bread of maida flour. It is usually kept for sehri, the pre-dawn meal after which the fasting starts. Khajla’s robustness helps a fasting man to survive the day.
The festive nights