To continue the Zakaria Street Ramzaan walk…
So…where were we? Oh yes, we did reach Zakaria (Jacquaria, as it was originally called) Street. Now, this stretch of road connecting Chittaranjan Avenue and Chitpore Road is one of the busiest roads in the city. To be very honest, as I had mentioned in my last post, it is like a mini Meena Bazaar or the Jama Masjid area, especially during the Ramzaan month. With shops on both sides of the road, and stalls selling everything from clothes to sweets to food. And if you are there around dusk, the entire stretch seems to get ready for Iftaar. So, you get different types of food ranging from freshly cut fruits to deep-fried fritters to Dahi Vada to dry fruits to heaped chana mixed with tomatoes, onion and a dash of lemon to just about anything.
Another thing you will find in abundance around this time of the year is Rooh Afza, an essential Iftaar drink, that is believed to have a whole range of ingredient. Rooh Afza, formulated as early as 1906, necessarily translates to “Nourishing the Soul” in Urdu, and trust me, it does. Two varieties of another delight that you cannot miss are flatbreads. Better known as Bakharkhani and Sheermal, these delights cannot be missed. To trace the history, Bakharkhani is believed to have originated from Dhaka, Bangladesh and has a rather tragic story of lost love attached to it. Who would have thought that such a crispy delicacy made of flour, semolina, sugar, salt, ghee, and sugar, and sprinkled generously with saffron, poppy or nigella seeds is named after a pair of star-crossed lovers? Sheermal, on the other hand, is a sweeter variety originating from Greater Iran and brought to our country by the Mughals. In Persian, the words literally mean rubbed in milk. Therefore, technically, this bread is made of maida and baked in an oven like a nan, flavoured with saffron and cardamom.
As we walk towards the grand mosque, the sun was almost lost behind the towering buildings between us and the river, behind which it dips down every evening, but there was still some more time left for Iftaar to start. And this time, for the first time since I started to visit this area, I entered the Nakhoda Masjid! I am not sure why I was under the impression that I would not be allowed inside, but this had forever stopped me from trying. Not this time though! As one very helpful gentleman directed me, almost amused that I even doubted that, to take a by-lane to enter the inner area, which by now was teeming with people as we were about quarter of an hour away from Iftaar.
It might be just a mindset, but something made me cover my head reverentially before entering, and as I stepped in, I was transported to a different world. All around me were people who had fasted through the day, without compromising their daily chores or work or profession, the joy that emanated from their faces as the clock ticked away towards the moment they can break their fast along with their loved ones, the cold glass of Rooh Afza that was handed over to me (trust me, no matter how many times I tried at home, it never tasted this way), the silver speck of the moon now appearing different to me from within the inner walls, the low hum of happy souls around me…I could not have asked for a better culmination of my day! I had read up incessantly about this grand place of worship. And here is what I learnt.
The term Nakhoda has often been misunderstood as “Na-Khuda” or someone who does not believe in God, but the word has different meanings in different languages, all of which together have led to this misconception. The mosque apparently derives its name from the community that had taken the initiative to build this grand structure. The biggest mosque in Calcutta, Nakhoda Masjid was built by a community of Kutchhi Memoni Sunni Muslims, funded largely by shipping prince, Abdur Rahim Osman for whom, Nakhoda implied mariner or captain of a ship. The foundation stone was laid way back in 1926 and even back then, the construction had cost INR 1,500,000/-. So huge is the structure that 10,000 people can pray here at a time.
The grand entrance is a poorer copy of the Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri, but when it starts to get dark and the lights slowly come out on the two minarets on the front gate, and the first strains of the Azaan touches the heart, the quality of the imitation hardly matters. Trust me, you have to be there to feel it!
While we did not continue our food trail much further, for more energetic foodies, here are a couple of recommendations – do not miss the Beef Chnaap and Roti from Bombay Hotel, just a few steps away from Taskeen, right on Zakaria Street and Haleem or Biriyani from Aminia, right opposite the main entrance of Nakhoda Masjid. While Aminia serves the Bengali version of the Nizam’s favourite dish (with potato, something the Bengalis cannot do without) Royal Indian Hotel, a block and a half away, right on Chitpur Road continue to stick to the original variety without potatoes. If you manage to reach Royal in time for a plate for Biryani, it is a sin to forget the Mutton Chnaap. Also, remember to wrap it all up with Firni.
If you do have the energy and if you don’t feel too full to walk all the way back, (and we did go back, such was our gluttony!) what awaits you at Haji Alauddin sweet shop are Ramzaan Special Rasmalai (it was over by the time we went) and Battisi halwa, made with 32 ingredients and bound to transport you to another world. The Jalebi and the Gulab Jamun are also worth a try! And just in case you are interested in demonstrating your culinary skills in making Mughlai or Awadhi food, the quaint small nameless shop right opposite Haji Alauddin sells the right spices and condiments that can label you as a master chef.
As we headed back towards Central Avenue walking up Colootola Street, our hearts and tummies and hands full, the crowd swell, but the smells, sights, and sounds of this stretch has a strange touch to it, that makes it all worth. As I write this today, my mind is back there, and I am reminded of something I read recently in “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple – “Islam has always been an urban faith. Its civilizations have always flourished most successfully in the labyrinths of the ancient bazaar towns of the East.” And although he said this about Delhi, it could merrily fit in for my own city as well!
Oh, and I am going back next year as well and you are welcome to join me on this hypnotic, memorable, satisfying walk down a historical and gastronomical paradise.