The myriad tastes and cultural influences of iftar
From wobbly china grass halwa to smoked samosas to sabudani ki kheer — Muslim communities around the country bring to the iftar table not just exciting meals but also diverse cultural influences
It is not vada, but vaadaa — a crunchy evening snack — served for iftar at Tamil-speaking Ravuthar Muslim homes in coastal Tamil Nadu. “This deep-fried snack migrated from Sri Lanka through the Ravuthar Muslim men who travelled there for business centuries ago, bringing back food stories that would eventually find their way into Ravuthar kitchens,” says Hazeena Seyad, who has documented hundreds of such recipes in her book Ravuthar Recipes- with a pinch of love (Hitech Universal Printers and Publishers). Shaped like a spacecraft, this deep-fried vaadaa is crunchy outside and chewy inside.E very coastal village has its own variant, she explains.Sri Lankan watalappam: a cardamom-spiced coconut custard sweetened with jaggery, and thakkadi: rice flour dumplings in mutton curry are other celebrated iftar dishes in Tamil Muslim homes. “The recipe of thakkadi is over two centuries old. The mutton curry is a hearty dish made with aromatic spices, coconut milk and poppy seeds to which the dumplings poached in mutton broth are added,” adds Haseena.
This month, Muslims world over observe a daily fast that begins with a pre-dawn breakfast or sehri, usually at 4 am, and ends with an evening meal or iftar around 7 pm or 7.30 pm.
The iftar meals give them a chance to reconnect with their heritage through food. Along with favourites like kanjis, haleems and kebabs, communities across the country bring to the table a diverse and exciting fare that celebrate their unique cultural influences.
For the Konkani Muslim community in Goa and Maharashtra, an iftar meal is incomplete without sandan — fluffy, steamed rice flour cakes made with yeast-fermented batter of rice and coconut. “We slice it and smear it with malai [cream] and dry fruits, or have it plain with chicken curry,” says Shabana Salauddin, a home chef who doles out authentic Konkani-style Muslim fare through her venture, Ammeez Kitchen.
The majority of Konkani Muslims trace their ancestry to Arab merchants who arrived in the region over a millennium ago, married local women and settled along the Konkan coast. “Konkani cuisine is a blend of coastal Maharashtrian flavours and Middle Eastern influences. Our cuisine keeps changing from one village to another, unlike the Bohra Muslim cuisine which remains the same across the world,” points out Shabana.
This cuisine also includes badam ki kanji (crushed almonds boiled in milk with sugar and cardamom powder) that packs an instant punch and sabudani ki kheer (sago boiled with a few spoons of milk and sugar) to bring down the body temperature after an entire day of fasting.
The cuisine of Kutchi Memons, an ethnic group that traces its roots to Kutch, Gujarat, has signature iftar specials that include bajre ka kebab made with millets, an one-pot dish called dhokray (steamed bajra dumplings in mutton gravy) and khichada with rice and dhal. “You can find the recipes only at Kutchi Memon households. The recipes are considered sacred, and guarded zealously,” says Anisa Arif, from Gujarat and is now settled in Chennai. She runs Zaiqa, the spice store.
The drink of love
At MKM Faiyaz Ahmed’s home in Hyderabad, popular dishes are gulabi jalebi, Arabian rice and mohabbat ka sharbat. “Yes, you heard it right. This drink is a a blend of milk, watermelon, cream and dry fruits. While Hyderabadi haleem forms an important part of iftar for Dakhni Muslims, other specialities include murgh malai tikka, boiled and mashed dal, mutton shammi kebab and fruit salads, a hangover of the Awadhi and Nawab cultures,” says Faiyaz, who makes promotional videos for restaurants.
Bohra Muslims, who are said to have migrated originally from Yemen to Gujarat, draw from their Gujarati roots, balancing savoury with a little sweet. “Bohras always eat in a communal setting, which is basically nine people around a big round thaali, called a thaal,” says Sakina Sabunwala, based in California. “Our popular dishes are kaari and chawal: a nuts and coconut-based mutton gravy with rice, and dal chawal palidu, a rice-based authentic Bohra dish. Gol paani or rosemilk is a common drink used to quench our thirst after breaking the fast.”
In one region, the cuisine is strikingly distinct. Moplahs, the Muslim community in Malabar, in the northern districts of Kerala, carry on the legacies of the merchant traders who visited the region centuries ago. Chennai-based Gazeena Sulu Kunhamed, who is from Malappuram, recalls how women would sit in a circle and roll innumerable ari pathiri, a thin chapati made out of rice flour, believed to be innovated by the women for their Arabian paramours, who were used to a bread-based diet.
“Our iftar table will be laid out with Malabar dishes like chatti pathiri, meen pathiri, chicken cake, Iranian pola, and kaipola… those were the days,” recalls home baker Haseena Yaseen wistfully. Settled in Coimbatore, she adds that for sehri, her grandmother (ummacha) made a sweet dish for children with njaalipoovan, a variety of banana, milk and sugar. It was called madura paal. Other iftar staples at Moplah Muslim homes include Jeerkakanji made with coconut milk and shallots, and godambu kanji made with wheat, chicken, coconut milk and other ingredients.
Says Gazeena, “Our snack mutta mala (egg garland made with yolk) descended from the Portuguese who lived in huge numbers in parts of Kozhikode. Every year, we spend the last 10 days of Ramzan month in Kerala for ‘nonbuthura’ at homes of our friends and relatives. We are missing the togetherness.”