Ramadan razzmatazz

During Ramadan, fasting, festivity, and food make Hyderabad a melting pot of cultures, the binding force being the varied food on offer, write SANDY N VIJAY

IMPOSING Mecca Masjid. PHOTOS BY AUTHORS

A couple is enjoying cups of hot tea gazing up at the magnificence of the Charminar. It is evening and not just another evening. It is an evening in the holy month of Ramadan. We are in the legendary area around the iconic Charminar in the city of Nizams, Hyderabad.

Ramzan or Ramadan which is a month-long arduous penance by the faithful is celebrated to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. It is a month devoted to fasting, prayer and abstinence. Ramadan, however, is much more than just a religious festival confined to a specific religion. It is a celebration of brotherhood and camaraderie. It is also a celebration of food which dissolves all boundaries of caste, creed, or religion.

The perfect place to have an immersive experience of the irresistible blend of food and culture is the historic city of Hyderabad. A city with a rich history, a city that seamlessly blends different cultures. A city that is quite literally a melting pot of different cuisines.

Haleem being pounded at a haleem factory.
Haleem being pounded at a haleem factory.

 

Historical haleem

It was afternoon and the heat of Hyderabad seemed to be at its peak. “The summer this time seems to be the worst,” said our host Harshvardhan, as we left the air-conditioned environs of the hotel. We were braving the heat to embark on a voyage of discovery of the flavours and aromas that form an integral part of the rich culture and heritage of Hyderabad. We would be visiting the lanes and bylanes around the Charminar that come into their own during the month of Ramadan. But before that, on the anvil was a visit to a haleem-making factory.

Haleem is a dish specially cooked during Ramadan. The dish with Arabic origins was popularised by the Nizams of Hyderabad and the rest, of course, is history.

“The haleem preparation starts as early as four in the morning,” says Zubair of Hyderabad Food Diaries who is curating the Ramadan experience for us. We are in front of a haleem factory, one of many that spring up in Hyderabad during Ramadan. Zubair goes on to explain that the entire process of cooking of haleem takes about 10 to 12 hours. Haleem is made of many ingredients which are all cooked, pounded, and blended together. Meat, wheat, black rice, dry fruits, spices, ghee, and milk all go into the making of haleem. Haleemwhich is rich in proteins, is considered the ideal energy booster to eat after a long period of fasting.

We watch two long rows of bhattis or furnaces with blazing fires. Workers with huge ladles stir the ingredients of the haleem in huge copper cauldrons positioned over the wooden fires. Some others pound the concoction with huge wooden hammers that have long handles. The pounding is an important part of the process, we are told, as the texture of the final product depends on this. Elsewhere in the factory, haleem is ready and poured into coloured containers for transportation to outlets across Hyderabad. Tempos line up outside waiting for their precious cargo.

Haleem is supplied to not only different parts of Hyderabad but is also shipped to cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Bengaluru, on the same day,” says Mohammed Abdul Mohsi. His father started Pista House about 20 years ago and now it caters to the insatiable appetite for haleem across India and even countries in the Middle East, Europe, and America.

Haleem is the showstopper during Ramadan and haunts you with its ubiquitous presence across the city of Hyderabad.

Ramadan fervour around Charminar.
Ramadan fervour around Charminar.

 

Buzz around Charminar

The imposing structure of Charminar, with that of the beautiful Mecca Masjid nearby, forms the epicentre of the vibrant activities during Ramadan. Some of the oldest and historic food outlets are scattered around these architectural icons of Hyderabad.

With the expansion of the city and development of new age localities like Gachibowli, the famous food outlets like Pista Cafe, Shah Ghouse and others have opened many branches. However, the alluring charm of the area around the Charminar remains undiminished.

The best way to experience the vibes, flavours, and aromas of Ramadan is to walk from the Shah Ghouse Cafe in a straight line towards Charminar and beyond. Shah Ghouse Cafe along with Pista House and Shadab are three of the most popular outlets that dish out haleem during Ramadan. Huge crowds mill around Shah Ghouse Cafe patiently waiting for their small cup of paradise. Some get it packed to savour at home along with family and friends.

Roadside stalls, restaurants, carts selling cut fruits, bangle stalls, all seemed to merge together in a flamboyant visual explosion. People of all communities walk shoulder to shoulder, savouring the spectacle, a sheer indulgence of the senses.

When in Hyderabad, you cannot resist tasting its famed biryani and this assumes a flavour of its own during Ramadan. Shadab Hotel, located some distance away from Charminar is abuzz with people flocking to indulge their palate with the tantalising taste of authentic biryani which is served with mirchi ka salan. There is a vegetarian variant available too which has many takers.

If haleem and biryani are foods that bring alive the aromas of another world and time, some of the sweet dishes provide a fitting climax to the experience. Two desserts that tempted and seduced us till we succumbed were qubani ka meetha and double ka meetha. These desserts are guaranteed to give gastronomic nirvana to any connoisseur of sweet dishes.

Glittering bangles reflect the glow of the lights from the illuminated Mecca Masjid where faithfuls flock to offer namaz. Homing pigeons circle the minarets while the street is abuzz with activity. Feeling thirsty we enter a small shop called Milan Juice Centre selling some exotic juices and shakes. After being overwhelmed by names like Himalayan malai, Yemeni Dry Fruit, malai salad, and others, we zeroed in on a preparation named shahdood malai. It was an enticing preparation of milk, cream, sugar, and mulberry.

Delectable biscuits on offer.
Delectable biscuits on offer.

 

Irani ‘chai’ beneath the Charminar

A cup of Irani tea. A plate full of some of the best biscuits and cookies you can get including the famous Osmania biscuits. The imposing presence of Charminar right in front of you. That moment seemed to encapsulate the entire experience of walking around Charminar on a Ramadan evening. The Nimrah Bakery, right beneath the Charminar, is apparently the place to head to for tea and small talk.

The feeling of oneness with the hordes of humanity that walked around in high spirits in the lanes and bylanes around Charminar, is what leaves an indelible mark on your mind. We take a last look at Charminar, and walk across the Lad Bazar lined with shops selling bangles of kaleidoscopic colours and designs.

We gaze up in awe at the old clock tower that stands as a reminder of the historic legacy of Hyderabad. The Mehboob Chowk clock tower was built more than 125 years ago and stands as a silent witness to the cultural evolution of Hyderabad from the city of Nizams to a modern and bustling IT city.

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