As Ramzan draws to a close, I am reminded of the fasting and feasting of days long gone and of Abbu’s famous kachalu.
My earliest memories of Ramzan are of Abbu, my father, sitting at the dining table making kachalu. The odd part was that he began to assemble this rather simple dish in the late afternoon, in fact a couple of hours before iftaar. I guessed that is when he was most hungry and he chose to while the time doing mundane chores like peeling, coring, chopping. His version of the kachalu usually comprised: guavas, apples, bananas, oranges and grapes, though others have been known to add a dash of pomegranates for extra colour or a handful of chiku for extra sweetness. Once done, he would cover the bowl and let it sit on the table. Years later, I figured that the kachalu tastes much better if made ahead because the fruit soaks in the lemon juice, pepper, sugar and rock salt that is sprinkled on top of the cut fruit. The whole thing does become a bit pulpy but since the kachalu is essentially different from its western cousin, the fruit salad, which relies on the crispy crunchiness of the diced fruit for effect, the mushiness is quite all right – you might even say, it is kosher.
Abbu has been gone for over ten years. The rhythm of my mother’s household faltered for the first few years but such is the inevitability of Time that some things soon fall back into place. Now, my mother makes the kachalu, perhaps with less diligence (and I might add, using ordinary table salt instead of the rock salt that gave Abbu’s version its unique pungency), but with unfailing regularity. Her flock is scattered in different cities but her home is still redolent with the fragrance of iftaari. She still sends tray loads of goodies to the local mosque and on any given day, when I walk into her home at iftaar time, I can still find a combination of the following on her table: pyaaz aur aloo ke pakode, chane ki daal, hari matar ki ghugni, dahi ki phulki, sonth ki chutney, chhole and/or qeeme ke samose!
The holy month of Ramzan, as many would know, is a period of fasting and prayer, charity and piety, retreat and abstinence. Lasting one lunar month (roughly 29 or 30 days), it culminates with the festival of Eid. The faithful fast during daylight hours, abstaining from both food and water, and eat one meal before dawn known as sehri, and another upon sunset, known as iftaar. I try and keep as many rozas as I can – time, weather and circumstance usually dictate the number of rozas I manage to keep during any given Ramzan; however, much though I have tried, I cannot match the culinary spread of my parents’ home in my own at iftaar time. Nor have I always, I must confess, managed to send tray loads of home-cooked savouries to the nearest mosque, it being customary to feed the needy and the wayfarer during Ramzan; sending money, instead, seems simpler, even pragmatic.
Pragmatism aside, I am reminded of the years gone past when my siblings and I were still at home and my parent’s nest was full. Ramzan then had seemed to us an extended period of fasting and feasting. I remember how the rhythm of the household changed; the kitchen slept through breakfast and lunch and geared up to provide iftaar and dinner, followed in quick succession by sehri. With different members of the household having different preferences for sehri, the table ended up looking like a buffet with something for everyone’s taste. Some preferred to have the usual roti, subzi, ande aloo – foods with fibre that stay in the stomach for longer and provide sustenance all through the day. Hapshi Halwa – a richer version of Turkish Delight made with cornflour, nuts, sugar and ghee was also eaten for the same reason – being ‘heavy’ it stayed in the stomach longer and provided heat. A traditional sehri favourite used to be jalebis left to soak overnight in milk or pheni, an extremely fine version of vermicelli bought ready-made in what looked like monstrously large birds’ nests, and, like jalebis, dunked in warm milk. Others, who were squeamish about eating a large meal at that time of the night, usually ate toast, eggs or fruit. The smokers took care to have several quick ones and the tea and coffee drinkers similarly tanked up for the day! There was always some member of the household who invariably overslept and despite repeated reminders and incessantly-ringing alarms, invariably straggled in when everyone was nearly done causing a flurry of last-minute gobblings and gulpings accompanied with frantic glances at the wall clock.
As the night sky lightened and the proverbial white thread held out against the sky would begin to show up heralding the end of sehri, some would snuggle back into bed, others stay awake praying or reading till it was time to go our separate ways. My mother, a librarian, would be the first to leave the house. Abbu, a doctor, would head for his clinic, and the four of us to our respective offices/universities/schools. By the evening we would rally around the long dining table waiting to open the fast (not break it!) with a date, followed by a sip of water and then gorge on a wide variety of snacks. Abbu, however, would prefer to eat just a little, go off to say the maghrib namaaz and then return to concentrate on his dinner. The idea behind the iftaar foods, he believed, was merely to tickle the palate not fill the stomach with heavy foods. For the rest of us, iftaar was serious snack time, with dinner following an hour or so later. The spread usually included some, if not all of the following:
Pyaaz aur aloo ke pakode: fritters made with onion and lightly boiled potatoes cut in rings and coated in a spicy gram flour (besan) paste; green ones with chopped spinach; or with whole green chillies or other seasonal vegetables encased in a spicy batter.
Kachalu: a pungent sweet and sour fruit chaat
Chane ki daal: a light chaat of boiled chana dal which, oddly enough, no one ever thinks of making at any time other than Ramzan;
Ghughni: sautéed or steamed green peas, seasoned with crushed pepper corns and green chillies
Dahi ki phulki: gramflour dumplings in beaten curd redolent with crushed garlic and roasted cumin seeds
Chhole: boiled chick peas seasoned with garam masala and generously studded with chopped tomatoes and onion
Kaleji: tongue-tickling bite-sized pieces of liver in a methi-flavoured thick sauce
Qeeme ke samose: mince stuffed in pastry puffs
Sonth ki chutney: a tart concoction of tamarind, gur, chilly flakes, dried ginger. Usually thin and runny with sliced bananas floating on top, it is eaten as an accompaniment with most of the above
Gallons of good, strong tea!!!
Dinner, in my parent’s home, was a serious business during Ramzan. It had combinations of the following: shaami/seekh/galauti kababs, aloo-gosht, matar-qeema followed by phirni or some other equally substantial sweet. Another family favourite that made an appearance during Ramzan was shahi tukde – a rather elegant way of presenting stale bread by frying up the slices, dipping them in a strong sweet syrup, then pouring cream (Milkmaid more often than not!!!) and topping the whole with strands of saffron and chopped nuts. A particular dinnertime favourite used to be nihari – a rich fragrant, flavoursome, full-bodied curry cooked overnight over a slow fire. This was invariably sent over by some neighbour, friend or relative who ‘specialised’ in making this labour-intensive dish. The meat would melt during the slow cooking and dissolve and the marrow in the bones made the curry thick and gelatinous. This was “soul food” at its best and strictly not for the queasy or the weight watchers. Other winter favourites eaten during Ramzan for their heat-giving properties used to be paaye, chuqandar gosht or shab degh.
But, for a truly memorable iftaar dinner there was nothing to compare with the divine haleem – a meal in itself – made by cooking together pound barley, oats and de-husked wheat kernels, rice, pulses and meat garnished with ginger juliennes, slivers of browned onions, chopped coriander, piping hot ghee. It had to be eaten with lots and lots of green chilly to make you go up in smoke and a small side dish of plain yoghurt to put out the fire. Incidentally, haleem was also an epicure’s delight and a one-dish wonder at special haleem parties. Ironically, it means ‘modest’ or ‘frugal’ in Arabic. There are many apocryphal stories surrounding the haleem and every family has its own closely-guarded version of how best to cook and, equally important, serve it. The one story that most seem to agree about is the one about its origins: that it was a camp dish, comprising whatever scraps of meat and lentils were at hand for the small embattled group fighting the epic Battle of Karbala in 679 AD. On the days that haleem or khichda, as it is also called in some parts of Upper India, would be made in our home, the Fasting Faithful could ask for no more.
Now, in my own home, when I gulp some tepid soya milk for sehri and rustle a sandwich or tear open a packet of chips or biscuits at iftaar time or air fry some frozen McCains, I am reminded of the old days that were good to the Fasting Faithfuls.
Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a well known Indian writer, critic and literary historian. She is best known for much-acclaimed book on Delhi’s lesser-known monuments called Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India and a well-received collection of short stories, called Release & Other Stories (Harper Collins, 2011). Her PhD. on the Progressive Writers’ Movement as Reflected in Urdu Literature has been published by Oxford University Press as Liking Progress, Loving Change (2014). Rakhshanda Jalil runs an organization called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularization of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.