It was a sultry Monday evening in Bhendi Bazaar, the heart of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Mumbai. As the soothing melody of Azaan punctuated the incessant traffic noise, a group of nine, including me, sat around a large thaal, all ready to dig into an iftar meal.
Mansur Mandasaurwala and his family were hosting me for iftar in their brightly-lit home that overlooked the mosque. The eating of a traditional Bohri thaal, meant to be shared by a group of eight, is a custom like no other. All through the month of Ramzan, a central kitchen, Faiz al-Mawaid al-Burhaniyah (FMB), prepares and distributes this food to the city's entire Dawoodi Bohra community. The function of the central kitchen, located in Fort, is to ensure that each community member gets a nourishing meal every day. Mandasaurwala says it poetically, “No one has to go to sleep on an empty stomach.”
Also read: Making a case for Sehri foods during Ramzan
This concept is not unique to Mumbai. Wherever Bohras reside worldwide, there is a central kitchen to serve the community, and leftover food is distributed among the underprivileged. Each family makes a voluntary monetary contribution to the FMB to keep it running. For Ramzan, the central kitchen releases a menu plan for each day with sweets, snacks, main course, drinks and fruits, detailing the ingredients and how to cook them. The menu remains consistent across the globe, with slight variations and recommendations for substitutes depending on the availability of ingredients.
The meal I ate had the creamiest hand-churned mango ice cream I've ever eaten, baida roti, a lightly spiced and nourishing boneless chicken lababdar, rotis, rice speckled with lots of fried onion, daal, grapes and a chilled honey-infused drink. The family told me that the daily-changing menu never lists aerated drinks and is carefully planned to nourish someone who has fasted all day.
The meal began with a pinch of salt. One of the Bohri food customs is to begin eating by tasting salt, followed by dessert; the combination of salt and sweet prepares the palate, it is believed. Besides, if the sweet item is silken, hand-churned ice cream, it’s easy to surrender to the strictest food rules. It is then followed by snacks, roti and a vegetarian or non-vegetarian tarkari, a rice item with dal and ends with fruits and drinks.
The meal was more than enough for the group of nine, but the family went the extra mile and brought Bhendi Bazaar specials. There were kebabs, rolls and tikkas straight from the sigdi. And, just when I thought that dessert was done in the first course, they placed a pile of warm Malpuas with kulhads of thick rabdi on the thaal, a Bhindi Bazaar special. People come from all corners of the city just for the famous Malpua and rabdi.
Also read: An iftar in Jama Masjid
The ultimate offence is to waste food, and every plate was polished clean. Any leftover food—I suspect there was none—was packed to be picked by a group of volunteers who belong to the Dana Committee. It is another Bohra organisation that distributes leftover food among the underprivileged. Old, young, and even children willingly volunteer to be part of the Dana Committee. As we ended our meal and said our goodbyes, Mandasaurwala thanked us with, “Bolte hain khaana khilane mein bohut barkat hain (One receives blessings while feeding those who are hungry).”
To go on a food trail in Bhendi Bazaar, make pit stops at these places
Tawakkal Sweets: Established in the year 1955, Tawakkal Sweets is a one-stop destination for halwas, jalebis, gulab jamuns and the famous malpua-rabdi of Bhendi Bazaar.
Hajji Tikka Corner: This pocket-friendly non-vegetarian food is a heaven for iftar specialities like kebabs, tikkas and Biharis,
Taj Ice Cream: It’s a centuries-old joint famous for its hand-churned ice creams that date back to 1887. It was started by Valilji Jalaji who arrived in Mumbai from Kutch arrived and started the business by selling fruits mixed with milk in earthen pots.
Surti Bara Handi Paya: Established in 1938, this shop sells gravies and biryanis painstakingly prepared in 12 massive handis.
The experience was organised by Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust who are involved in the redevelopment of Bhendi Bazaar.