At TAG-GourmArt Kitchen, celebrity chef and food show host Ranveer Brar’s swanky restaurant, the food is modern vegetarian; the decor part vintage, part pop-culture; and the vibe uppity. The single-storey structure is nestled in Mumbai’s repurposed Kamala Mills. To reach the restaurant, one must first navigate through an art gallery. When I reach at 4 p.m., Brar is behind the kitchen counter. When he exits, we discuss his favourite Ramzan foods over a gulab jamun cheesecake. Interestingly though, the dishes that come up seem like total misfits in the avant-garde setting we are. There’s a slim chance that Marilyn Monroe, sprawled on a canvas across our table, would approve of fatty haleem in Hyderabad, greasy kachoris in old Delhi, or Lucknow’s tala gosht. “But this is exactly the kind of Ramzan food I have grown up eating and exploring,” says Brar.
For the next two hours, the chef animatedly encapsulates the different Ramzan celebrations he has experienced across Lucknow, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi. From sehri (the pre-dawn meal) and iftar (the evening meal with which a fast is broken) to midnight food walks, he’s done it all.
“In the city of nawabs, the spirit of Ramzan is felt more in people’s homes than the streets. And that’s what makes Ramzan unique here. Also, Lucknowis love a wholesome sehri… fried beef, brinjal pakodis, rose petal-infused chai.”
Every dish’s name seems to be evoking a memory, of iftars had with nawabs and of sehris at a friend’s humble apartment. Brar, for the uninitiated, is from Lucknow. Before joining the Institute of Hotel Management in his hometown, he trained under a local kebabwaala. “Scouring the city’s labyrinthine slaughterhouses for the best cuts along with my mentor, Munir Ahmed, is one of my first memories of Lucknow’s Ramzan.”
He adds that the city’s sehri favourites are tala gosht (fried beef) and nihari (slow-cooked lamb stew). “Unlike the red nihari served elsewhere, Lucknowi nihari is yellowish in colour because it’s made with yellow chilli powder and in mustard oil.” Another sehri staple is the kagzi samosa, a kind of puff pastry but without any filling, typically had with Kashmiri chai. “The Kashmiri chai is essentially milk tea with rose petals,” Brar explains. “The rose petals were added to give the regular milk tea a pinkish tint, influenced from visiting Kashmiri traders.” Like his food, Brar’s responses come well-seasoned, peppered with anecdotes.
Iftar, too, is heavy, and is often clubbed with dinner. Besides fruits and dates, there’s mutton korma and band gosht, a turmeric-infused lamb stew; shahi tukda, a sweet made of fried bread; and milk lachha or vermicelli soaked in lukewarm milk. “Another popular dessert, especially when Ramzan falls in winter, is the creamy makhan malai. Halwais (confectioners) from Varanasi brought this snack here,” says Brar. “Like makhan malai, many dishes have traversed across geographical and religious boundaries to make it to Lucknow’s Ramzan menu.”
Brar insists that if there’s one place in India where you must experience chand raat, which is the last night of Ramzan, it should be old Delhi. “Muslims in this part of Delhi love eating out. Even those who break bread at home parcel something.” The reason, he reckons, is that the 1.5-kilometre patch around Jama Masjid is a bustling bazaar dotted with numerous food stalls. “This stretch—with Muslims settled in the lanes surrounding the mosque, and Hindus dominating the Chandni Chowk and Sita Ram Bazaar areas—is also what constituted Shahjahanabad, or the old walled city of Delhi, during Mughal emperor Shahjahan’s rule,” he adds. By now I have realised that Brar loves trivia, and this brief history lesson will lead somewhere.
“I love food folklore,” he chimes in, reading my mind. “The point is, centuries later, this stretch has evolved into a melting pot, assimilating cultures and cuisines of both the communities. Today, Muslims sell tikka, tandoori and kheema samosas. Hindus sell fruits, chaats and kachoris. Brar’s recommendation is the aloo kachori served at Kamaal Sweet Shop opposite Jama Majid. For desserts, his pick is the kheer at a hole-in-the-wall stall below actress Meena Kumari’s old house, and opposite the Badal Beg Masjid. “These are the only two landmarks. Here, the milk is reduced on a wood fire until the kheer turns light-brown. And this shop only sells kheer. In fact, the sincerity with which the place is run is what prompted some food bloggers to chip in and put up a signboard outside this previously nameless shop. It’s now called Bademiyan Kheer Shop.”
A must-try sehri dish in Hyderabad is KKK. It stands for khichri kheema khatta. It is yellow khichri served with dry kheema and topped with a mixture of curd mixed with tamarind, sesame seed, and groundnut paste. Palak gosht (spinach-mutton curry) with barley roti is another must-have sehri staple. Brar also recommends a trip to Barkas, a town in old Hyderabad whose first residents were the Nizam’s Yemenite soldiers. “The Arabic influence here is clearly visible. Shawarmas, for instance, are marinated in an onion-cashew paste.” As for the famous Hyderabadi haleem (in picture), a lentil-minced meat dish, Brar’s favourite is the one served at Shah Gause in the Moazzam Jahi Market. “He uses the most obscure cuts and the fattiest parts, and I love that,” Brar says, laughing.
For iftar, his favourite is the jouzi ka halwa at Hameedi’s. “This wheat germ halwa tastes outstanding,” he says. His picks for savoury dishes are chana dal topped with raw onion, chilli and tomatoes, and kheema lukmi, a samosa-like snack with minced meat filling, sold outside Charminar.
Of the two popular Mumbai Ramzan haunts—Minara Masjid and Bohri Mohalla, both in south Mumbai— Brar prefers Bohri Mohalla. “Minara Masjid is too hyped,” he says. “I only go there for the malpua. I love the showmanship that goes into the making of one. It’s enthralling to watch men beat up eggs ferociously and fry the malpuas in giant woks or kadhais,” he says. Another of Brar’s Minara Masjid recommendation is sandal, a steamed, slightly fermented rice pudding that’s finished with cream. “Everyone talks about the more popular phirni, but sandal, which is only available in Ramzan, is a must-try,” he says.
In Bohri Mohalla, which is more understated and easier to navigate, he loves patrelia, a semi-dry gravy of cocoyam leaves and mutton, served at a stall called Feroz Farsan. For desserts, Brar likes heading to Tawakkal Sweets for their mawa-filled flaky puff pastry known as malai khaja.
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.