Over the last fortnight, I have found myself waiting impatiently for the clock to strike 6 pm; just around the time of evening prayers, before the fast is broken.
In the days of Ramzan, the air at 6 pm is thick with celebratory aroma; the road across the mosque is lined with stalls, cooking up a storm, and it draws a crowd like moths to a flame.
The people it draws are wide and varied. I look around me as I wait for my first taste of the evening's pleasures. I see a girl with a dark, khol-rimmed eyes and a nose ring mount her bicycle, with a bag of steaming sheekh hung across the handle bars. Groups of boys, curly-haired and goateed, tear into legs of tandoori kebab. A couple of college girls with colourful jholas march determinedly from one booth to the next, paper plate in hand, steadily munching on assorted goodies. The local celebrity chef moves from stall to stall on a food walk with his friends, sampling the wares and taking pictures. And couples, united by their love of food, share a plate on the pavement, while beggars, daddies, and doggies squeeze by. Just about everyone appears to have turned up at this cook-out.
And everyone's either got a plate, waiting for one, or simply eating out of someone else's. The assortment of food on this stretch of road means that you will certainly find something that suits your palate. We begin with mutton samosas - crisp, juicy and absolutely delectable, you just can't stop at one. My partner-in-gluttony and I share three before moving on to the next indulgence. We move in no particular order really, merely following our noses. My personal favourite, string hoppers (iddi-appams) and sheekh kebabs appear to be a runaway hit today, and the hoppers are vanishing fast. I decide it's time for drastic measures. Grabbing the token from partner-in-gluttony I squeeze my way to the front of the grill, armed with my sole advantage - I am the only girl at this stall.
"Bhaiya, chaar semiya please?" (Punctuate with sweet smile and imploring eyes). He looks up suspiciously (oh no, this isn't going to work! And the charcoal-and-sheekh smell in my hair will all be for nothing!). But the foodie in me refuses be deterred by the narrowed eyes of a harrowed cook, so I continue to smile determinedly, with my hand outstretched. And before long, six string hoppers are heaped into my plate!
Sting hoppers, made from steamed rice flour, a maze of spirals, is the perfect foil to tender, warm, melt-in-the-mouth sheekh. In under a minute, the plate is cleaned out, and looks at us for a refill.
It is time for deep-fried divinity - the kheema roti. These stuffed rotis are so hot that the oil still sizzles atop its deep-brown crust; my mouth waters. In a single bite, I taste the goodness of freshly kneaded roti and the succulence of kheema; the crisp outer layers hide deep, soft, scrumptious insides. Heat and spice add to the excitement of every bite. Eyes glazed over in concentration, with no time for talking, the stuffed roti holds every sense captive.
Wordlessly, we obey the post-kheema craving to find ourselves outside Mama's Chai stall. A charming, white-bearded man greets us with familiarity, "Madaaam! Good to see you! Where have you been all these days?" He saw us only yesterday, but we play along; all in good humour. He pours us two cups of tea. Although, I must point out that it seems grave injustice to call this brew merely tea. The milk for this concoction, he tells us, is set to boil from eight in the morning. And it stays on the stove until the fast is broken after evening prayers. In this elaborate process of milk reduction, the spices are thrown in sometime before sunset, while the black tea is prepared separately. At the appointed hour, when the foodies show up, what they see is thick, creamy liquid topped with a dash of black brew. It is served in shot-glass sized portions, and those four sips are infinitely more refreshing than anything I have tasted.
At this point, food coma sets in, and we are too happy and full-bellied to attempt conversation. Saluting the kindly tea-stall gentleman, and fully intending to return the following evening, we make our way home.
I can't think about eating right now, but at the back of my mind, a quiet excitement builds. It won't be long before D-day, when our generous Muslim friends throw open their homes, and invite us to join their celebration. Until then, I will dream of fragrant grains of biryani, homemade with love and care, the culmination of the season's rejoicing. Happy Eid!