After the evening prayers, the lanes around Jama Masjid come alive, offering a unique gastronomic experience. The tour starts at the mosque, where my brother and I entered to join in the iftar meal. During Ramzaan, the month of fasting, the faithful eat only two meals a day; one before sunrise, sehri, and one after sunset, iftar.
On the floor of the mosque’s open courtyard are seated men, women and children who have not let a drop of water pass their parched lips since the pre-dawn sehri meal before the Fajr prayer (the first of the five daily prayers). They are waiting for the signal that the sun has set and the fast is over.
Steam arose from the hot stones as we sat down. Our guide wet the red sandstone floor beneath the blue geometric mat in order to cool it. We sat in a circle. He licked his dry lips as he opened bags of food and instructed us to take some. We set up our plate, placing one item each from the open bags: a crispy samosa, a crunchy onion fritter, a soft chilly fritter, a date, and half a jalebi (funnel cake). He poured us a cold glass of sweet sandalwood sherbet from the thermos flask. We set the plastic cup gingerly on the mat next to the food-laden tinfoil plate. We were ready to take a sip and chew on a date when the designated time arrived.
Around us, ladies were busy slicing bananas, watermelons, cantaloupes, mangoes and other fruit. An excited air of anticipation hung in the air. Little beggar children went from group to group, collecting fruit and eatables from the hungry, empathetic faithful. Boys lay languorously on the floor, scanning their phones, awaiting their first date of the evening.
A sudden boom blasted the air. It startled the birds and made streams of sherbet gush down grateful throats. The dusky sky was suddenly illuminated by an outline of tiny lights framing the mosque. Forks pierced the fruit and the crunch of the samosas reached the ears of the halwai chef at Kallan sweet store. The cottage cheese laden jalebis crumbled in delight. The silence of the satiated would soon turn to grateful prayers.
We stepped out of the mosque to embark on a gastronomical walk of the neighborhood.
Earlier in the evening, at about 5:30 p.m., we had alighted at the Chawri Bazaar metro station and stepped into a rickshaw to reach Jama Masjid’s gate number 1. Now we emerged from the gate and walked straight down Matia Mahal road. On either side of the road were mouth-watering delicacies.
We walked past the 75-year-old sweets shop Kallan Sweets on the left, past Al Jawahar and Karims, both known for their wonderful kormas, mutton burra, chicken stew, and chicken Jehangiri, and onwards to Aslam, who serves tandoori chicken tikka in a pool of melting butter. Butter chicken here means exactly what it says-butter and chicken.
We headed to Chicken Changezi in Gali Choodiwali in search of the famous mutton nihari. Walking briskly, weaving my way through the crowds so as to not lose sight of my guide, I wondered if I could eat any more. The first bite of the bread, smothered in the smooth, glazed, cooked-all-night-long, melt-on-the-bone mutton gravy dispelled all doubts. Chicken Changezi does not make nihari with buffalo meat as is traditional, but uses mutton or goat meat.
We then rolled back down the road towards the Masjid. Shops laden with mounds of vermicelli, breads, cakes, and dates were on either side of the lane. We stopped at Golden Bakery to take a bite of the hot-out-of-the-oven sheermal, a buttered and jam-laden soft bun bread, and pineapple-flavored cakes.
Huge cauldrons of oil bubbled and boiled outside Haji Mohammed Hussain Fried Chicken, the house of JFC or Jama Masjid Fried Chicken. It beats KFC any day, our guide informed us. Out of the festive bubbles, he scooped out crispy gram-flour-encrusted fish and chicken, dusted it in a masala powder, and poured a dollop of his signature yellow mustardy sauce. We stood around licking our fingers.
Steps away, the billboard above the street vendor Qureshi proclaimed: “Pyaar Mohabbat Mazaa” (affection, love, fun). Watermelon chunks bobbed up and down a pink, milky drink. We reached for the unique milk drink laced with rose syrup to wash down the spice. This drink is served only during Ramzaan, our guide wanted us to know.
Cool Point’s shahi tukda (bread deep fried in pure ghee and then dipped in thick cream and sugar syrup) and a scoop of mango and vanilla ice cream topped the meal.
As my full stomach fell out of my pants, I was jealous of the people around me who would fast the calories away the next day. Eating seven hours a day and fasting for 17 hours has become very popular with the millennials as a general rule. With religion as a guide to good health, the faithful who fasted were one up. I was sure that after forty days of the Ramzaan fast, the body would indeed demand only what it needed and water would taste sweeter than lemonade.
I looked for an electric rickshaw to take us back to the metro station. Sweet watermelon thoughts bobbed up and down in my happy but sleepy brain. I too would like to fast if such a feast waited for me at the end of the day.
Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor and an avid gourmand of unique experiences.