How Nakhoda Masjid’s neighbourhood in Kolkata grew into a Ramzan food hub

How Nakhoda Masjid’s neighbourhood in Kolkata grew into a Ramzan food hub


There is never a time of the year when the neighbourhood of Burrabazar in central Kolkata is not crowded.  But during Ramzan, the streets around Nakhoda Masjid, the city’s principal mosque, are absolutely packed to the rafters.

Over the years, during the holy month, the neighbourhood is particularly overrun with tourists, both from outside and from within the Kolkata metropolitan area, who are drawn here with the promise of Ramzan-special food.

“But Ramzan isn’t so much about food as it is about prayers,” says Shaikh Sohail, who runs Breakfree Trails, a Kolkata-based tour company, and specialises in tours focusing on culinary history.

“The crowds here are mostly tourists,” he adds as he navigates through a sea of people.

Sohail isn’t exaggerating.  A large number of people walking around Nakhoda Masjid in the evenings are most likely locals turned tourists who are visiting the area for its diverse culinary offerings.

Kolkata Ramzan Food The neighbourhood around Nakhoda Masjid has historically been a centre of trade and commerce since the British East India Company first combined three villages to establish Calcutta, and little has changed. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

The neighbourhood around Nakhoda Masjid has historically been a centre of trade and commerce since the British East India Company first combined three villages in 1698 to establish the city of Calcutta, and little has changed. Archival documents of the city indicate the presence of Bengali, Marwari and Gujarati businessmen and their enterprises in the early years of the neighbourhood. As trade thrived in the area, smaller businesses mushroomed all around the neighbourhood to cater to the everyday needs of the people who were living and working here.

In 1840, the Cutchi Memon arrived from the west of the Indian subcontinent to Calcutta, a move that was facilitated because of the community’s growing trade with Burma, Ceylon, Java and Singapore. Close to a century after they first settled in the city, the community came together to establish the imposing Nakhoda Masjid in 1934.

“The mosque itself is a reference to the fact that this was a trading hub. It was built here because the people were here. Because it became a centre for business, the very first Muslim restaurants came up here,” says Sohail. Over the years, these factors also contributed to why the mosque and the wider neighbourhood became an important part of Eid prayers and the month of Ramzan.

A stone’s throw from Nakhoda Masjid are two of the several iconic eateries in this neighbourhood that have been important establishments in the city’s modern culinary history: the 94-year-old Aminia and the 118-year-old Royal Indian Hotel, both specialising in Mughlai cuisine.

Kolkata Ramzan Food A stone’s throw from Nakhoda Masjid are two of the several iconic eateries in this neighbourhood that have been important establishments in the city’s modern culinary history. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

Over the century, several similar establishments opened to cater to busy people in this business district and subsequently acquired institutional status. “Several small food stalls started opening around the mosque and they started catering to this Muslim trading community because there was a market for it. As these restaurants kept evolving, they started opening street stalls as well, perhaps because it was easier to sell their food that way. Over time, this area became a hub for clothing and food, and anything Ramzan-related,” says Sohail.

Temporary food stalls pop up just as Ramzan starts, selling everything from the fasting-essential dates to slices of fruit and glasses of Rooh Afza and similar sherbets. “All these stalls will be gone on the thirtieth night of Ramzan, to prepare for Eid prayers,” Sohail says.

One of those temporary stalls, ‘Murabadi Laziz Kabab’, sells different kinds of biryani and grilled meats but the star attractions are the variations of fish fry. A large double fried carp hangs from a hook on one side of the stall, smeared in masalas. “This is different from the Bengali fish fry and it’s called the Moradabadi fish fry because it takes after the Morabadi style of cooking. All the way from Uttar Pradesh to Punjab and parts of Pakistan, you’ll find the same kind of cooking,” says Sohail.

Kolkata Ramzan Food Temporary food stalls pop up just as Ramzan starts, selling everything from the fasting-essential dates to slices of fruit and glasses of Rooh Afza and similar sherbets. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

This shop came up a decade ago, and was usually only seen during Ramzan, making it a food specifically found during this month. But these days, it is not uncommon to see this kind of Morabadi style cooking throughout the year, says Sohail. On the opposite side of the street, is another temporary establishment, selling rich, dense halwa with deep-fried paratha. This kind of halwa, made using suji or semolina, is a staple in the North-West Frontier Province region and was likely brought over by Hindi-speaking Muslim traders to Kolkata. This standard breakfast fare, while now available in many Muslim neighbourhoods in the city, is also a Ramzan special, but with more dry fruits, Sohail says.

Down the lane from the Morabadi fry stall is Bashir Hotel, which has set up operations on the pavement outside to cater to the Ramzan crowds. A large banner specifically advertises the sale of its standard Bashir haleem, along with mutton haleem and chicken haleem, all Ramzan specials. Although the hotel itself was set up some 20 years ago, the family has been selling haleem, biryani in the neighbourhood for seven generations.

Kolkata Ramzan Food One of those temporary stalls, ‘Murabadi Laziz Kabab’, sells different kinds of biryani and grilled meats but the star attractions are the variations of fish fry. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

Different from the Hyderabadi haleem, this version of the dish, made with pulses and meat, cooked into a soupy consistency, is specific to Kolkata and is only available during Ramzan.

“This is a high-energy food and people prefer eating this after iftar in the evenings. You won’t find this everywhere because the cooking process is so labour intensive,” says Hassan Qureshi, the owner of Bashir Hotel.

Next door, the 91-year-old Jadid Islamia hotel is selling its own version of haleem. On the tables inside, rows of shallow clay cups with firni have been left to set. “This area is the centre of Kolkata and for the Muslim community, Nakhoda Masjid is the hub. Regardless of where Muslims live in the city, if there is shopping to be done, if there is preparation needed for weddings, or even other everyday needs, they’ll come here. They also come here for food. That happens even today and during Ramzan, people turn up in higher numbers,” explains Qureshi.

Kolkata Ramzan Food The 125-year-old Haji Allauddin Sweets. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

In conversations about food during Ramzan and Eid, food like biryani and meat preparations overwhelm discussions, ignoring the wide variety of desserts that many of the sweet shops around Nakhoda Masjid excel at. Like the many restaurants in this neighbourhood that first came up to cater to a primarily Muslim trading clientele, several sweet shops also grew, selling mithai unique to the community’s preference.

Two hours before iftar is scheduled to start, at the 125-year-old Haji Allauddin Sweets, lines have already started forming, making entry into the shop a challenge. While bloggers have made the battisi or battisa halwa popular, a rich mithai made of 32 ingredients, including natural gums like gond, as well as dry fruits, the shop’s director, Shadab Ahmed, says it is not a mainstay during Ramzan. He points to the shop’s classics- imarti, khajla, laccha- a variation of the firni, and malai kachori, that the shop specialises in during the festival. “The crowds become unmanageable during Ramzan. People have given the battisa halwa many names over the years. This is available throughout the year, but people will buy it during the festival because they like to eat it with milk, given how rich and heavy it is,” says Ahmed.

Kolkata Ramzan Food In conversations about food during Ramzan and Eid, like biryani and meat preparations overwhelm discussions, ignoring the wide variety of desserts that many of the sweet shops around Nakhoda Masjid excel at. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

When it comes to West Bengal, the state’s range of desserts is automatically associated with the Bengali mishti, missing out some essential sweets like Karachi halwa and Muscat halwa, that are important in the Muslim community’s cuisine, Sohail says. “Mishti is great, but we have our own version of it. A lot of mithai that we eat and are made in these shops are typically north Indian. When it comes to our sweets, the ingredients are limited to milk, khoya, and dry fruits. It is in Bengal where sweets have really been experimented with, which is why our mithai are very basic in comparison,” says Sohail.

While it is not impossible to find these kinds of sweets elsewhere in Kolkata, around Nakhoda masjid, it is prepared by shops run by families who have been in the business for decades. Sohail points to khajla, a round deep fried hollow pastry shell, similar in texture to the khaja, most commonly eaten with milk. “Khajala is popular as a food during Sehri,” he says, of the kinds of foods eaten during the pre-dawn meal during the fasting month.

Kolkata Ramzan Food What makes this neighbourhood special during Ramzan, a first-time visitor may wonder. Perhaps it is the sense of stillness and solemnity in the midst of the crowd and chaos during the holy month that the Nakhoda Masjid ekes out of every visitor as they inch closer to its periphery. (Express Photo: Neha Banka)

Walking around the Nakhoda Masjid area, it quickly becomes clear that almost all shops carry the same range of mithai and foods associated with Ramzan, but those who have mastered the craft over decades, just do it better. “A lot of shops in this area are considered ‘Muslim shops’, but places like Haji Allauddin Sweets have managed to break that stereotyping because of the quality of food they sell,” says Sohail.

What makes this neighbourhood special during Ramzan, a first-time visitor may wonder. Perhaps it is the sense of stillness and solemnity in the midst of the crowd and chaos during the holy month that the Nakhoda Masjid ekes out of every visitor as they inch closer to its periphery.  Just as the mosque signals that it is time for Maghrib prayers, when the fast is broken, hawkers selling cold glasses of pink-red Rooh Afza, nimbu paani and fruit juices, start mixing their concoctions in large jugs, doling it out into glasses for customers. Somehow during this holy month, even the smallest of vendors find that the streets of Nakhoda Masjid are charitable enough to have space for everybody who needs it.





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