In the spirit of suhoor

This meal had to be filling, energising, hydrating, and in line with the spirit of Ramadan, ensuring that thoughts of food and water were far from the mind.
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:51 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:51 IST

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Ever wondered about the culinary connections between Gujarati Lazizan, Kochi’s Thari kanji, Hyderabadi Haleem, Lucknowi Khichra, Mumbai Keema Ghotala, Assamese Jolpan, and Pani Pitha with Aloo Sabzi, Kashmiri Aab Gosht, Punjabi Pheni, Malabar Pola, Bhopali Paya Shorba, Bengali Keema Paratha, and Aam Kasundi Chingri or Odisha’s gulkand-infused Cuttack Biryani? These dishes, apart from being local delights in the Muslim culinary narrative of India, are integral not only to the glamorous Iftar spread but also to the lesser-known but equally crucial suhoor or sehri — the pre-dawn meal considered sacred by the Prophet Muhammad. This meal had to be filling, energising, hydrating, and in line with the spirit of Ramadan, ensuring that thoughts of food and water were far from the mind.

So how was it built? With loads of work, science and a few muses, says culinary archivist Chef Sharad Dewan. “The Sultans of Delhi Sultanate and the Arab merchants had realised that the food which worked in Persia and the Middle East had little advantage here, at least not all of it thanks to the weather and produce in the country. They thus began adapting and fusing dishes, leading to the creation of pulao, biryani, samosas, and other culinary innovations,” he adds.

Seasoned chef Yogender Pal highlights the creation of Thari Kanji, a drink-cum-porridge made of semolina, vermicelli, and coconut milk with dry fruits as an example of this adaptation. Similar beverages like Kashmiri Babribeoul Treish and Mohabbat ka Sharbat of old Delhi also became staples in suhoor and iftar meals due to their hydrating and filling properties. 

Thus began a series of adaptations — which happened with lazizan, a take on khichdi and other dishes — fusions that gave us our pulao, biryani, samosas and such, and heavy-duty redesigning of combinations that served the purpose. One such fascinating dish, says chef Pal, “is the creation of Thari Kanji, which is a drink-cum-porridge made of semolina, vermicelli and coconut milk with dry fruits.

A similar cousin of this is the Kashmiri Babribeoul Treish, which has basil seeds; sugar and milk, or the all-popular Mohabbat ka Sharbat of Old Delhi and the Jam Jam of Maharashtra. The beauty of each of these drinks is that it not only keeps you hydrated and full for a long time, but also rehydrates you effectively at the end of the day. Thus, making it a part of sehri and iftar.” “It is much like sattu or mandia, a thick beverage made of chickpea or ragi in East of India, which is known for its long satiating and preserving quality with minimal preparation time,” adds chef Dewan.

In fact, adds Chef Ravi Tokas, “the pheni, an indigenous variety of very thin seviyan and a constant in most sehri tables was one among the many dishes that were adopted for Sehri. These were not cooked instantly (you need hot milk) but were light yet filling that kept you going.” Interestingly, that wasn’t the only thing that made it to the sehri table, as parathas, bhajis, breads and meetha, especially doodh jalebi, also became a part of the menu for their functional nature.

Thanks to the chewability of paratha, traditional breads like katlam, bakarkhani, pathiri, and pithas, says Chef Sandeep Sadanandan, “too registered their presence in the sehri meal. The whole act of filling or garnishing them could elevate the simple staple into a nutritive powerhouse that could keep one satiated for long without the need for water. Paired with paya, shorba, nihari and aab gosht, which is a simple bone broth with pieces of bottle gourd, it made for a power meal that was nutritious, rich, yet not overpowering. Bonus, this could be made ahead and kept.”

Little wonder that it was a favourite in the royal dastarkhwan of not only the Khiljis, but Mughals, Nawabs and the Nizams too.

Rice was another of the favourites — mostly pulao — which says Chef Dhiraj Dargan, “like the murg pulao, moti pulao, Qabooli and the Tehri is subtly flavoured and could be had in the odd hours without the spike in insulin that could result in hunger and craving.” The lightness of food, says Hyderabadi cuisine expert Quddus Abdul, “especially on the blood sugar levels, was one of the reasons why the rules of suhoor were never as rigid as those of the Iftar, which began with a single date and flourished upto having at least four more ingredients — the watermelon or fruit, sherbat, dahi wada and kebab or pakora to ensure proper hydration, eventually to become the epicurean trail it is today. Hence, the liberty to choose dishes as per taste, even have the same food cooked for dinner for the previous night.”

This perhaps explains why one may find everything from harees, khichda, mutton curry or simple roti sabzi to offal dishes like keema kaleji and bheja fry to sprout salad and the modern oats pudding and sandwiches as part of the fare. The only criterion is to have food that is extremely nutritious and easy to digest.”

Another reason why on the first two days of Ramadan, says Chef Altamash Patel, “one would find people choosing between kebab paratha, mutton curries and pitha and different egg preparations before shifting to lighter fare over the days, which during the end comes down to khichdi, curd rice, fermented food like idli rasam or a simple chia pudding or even kale chane ki chaat or a halwa paratha.”

In fact, adds Chef Dargan, “halwas and certain kheer preparations find their space in sehri because of the fat and glutamate content, which ensures the mind handles  the early morning stress and habitual hunger pangs.”

Of course, adds Quddus, “paired with fruits, juices and a good chicken dish like a roll works well. Even the regular meal of khatti dal and chawal along with dried, spiced meat strips that are fried to crispness does the trick.” That’s a far cry from the hearty meal that was served back in his grandmother’s house, he adds, “as it has a subtle use of spices and not spice mixes with chilli taking a backseat for a while.”

Adds chef Shadab Ahmed, who prefers the goodness of “Doodh Lachha, Pheni, kebab, nuts, one composite dish like a pulao, khichdi or dal chawal followed by a sheer qorma to do the trick.”

The idea, says the Awadhi food specialist, “is to create what Unani and Vedic science put as “nutrient stack” especially fats and protein with complex carbs and minerals that would ensure a calm mind and energised body that would take eight hours without the craving.”

Incidentally, a dietary style that was followed by the army back in the medieval times, and by Buddhist monks even today, finds a place in the chef’s menu especially of the likes of Chef Dargan and Chef Sadanandan, who define it as a workable “canvas to healthy eating” (and for intermittent fasting gains too.)

(The author is a seasoned food columnist and curator of
experiential dining experiences, pop-ups and retreats for chefs.)

Published 14 April 2024, 00:51 IST

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