Dawoodi Bohras - Features

A bride walks across at the jamatkahna in Udaipur after a wedding feast.

Thought for food

The sweet and sour of Bohra cuisine

Although food is integral to human survival, for Bohras it boils down to much more. After faith and culture, it is food that binds them together, brings them together. In fact faith would have little currency without that inevitable jaman. Food, or at least the expectation of it, helps one endure those dreary majalises. And for the orthodox brethren, for whom no gathering, religious or otherwise, can end without the ritual of matam, that expectation cannot be sweeter.

Take food out of the equation and see what happens. One can’t speak for other communities, but one has a gut feeling that Bohras will lose their appetite for all things religious. Technically, food is not part of their faith but practically, it well might be. This is not to say that Bohras cannot stomach religion without food, but for them the two go together, like milk and sugar. It would seem that they need the push of two kharas and two mithas to help them swallow the excesses the priests have piled up on their already intricate Ismaili/Fatimid belief system.

Perhaps, the evolution of this mindset, this complementarity of religion and food, followed a certain logic. Wiley priests must have known that without appealing to a man’s stomach they cannot access his mind. Of course, women had figured that out eons before, but their destination was the heart. In either case though, the direct assault was on man’s stomach. The result was that they (the men) went out of shape physically and, given the state of Bohras one could argue, even spiritually. And when women were not targetting men, they too were falling victim to the priests’ sorcery and suffered similar disfiguration of body and mind.

This was all to a plan. Nothing delights a priest more than a misshapen and maladjusted human being. And Bohras with their umbilical cord tethered to jamat and jaman are a prefect raw material to work with. From a young age they are weaned on the ideological pap that they are the chosen ones. With this and other such deceptions, Bohra clerics have successfully fashioned a community that practically eats out of their hands. But despite their complete subjugation, it is not that Bohras cannot voice an opinion. When they complained about how fat and ugly they have become the priests lent a sympathetic ear, and came up with an ingenious solution. They were told to wear tents, plain white for men and printed and colorful for women. Thus Bohras came to have a well-pitched identity. And food as always remained their centre of gravity.

Ask any Bohra which food defines their culture and the answer invariably will be: daal chawal palida. This simple rice and curry dish is a staple of every Bohra home, and although it carries the culinary burden of a whole community it remains a humble and affordable food. But to judge Bohra cuisine by their signature dish would be grossly misleading. The Bohra mind maybe tamed but their palate remains wild and free. Or rather was allowed to remain wild and free.

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Some of the books of Ismail K. Poonawala.

When we in Udaipur were still dipping our measly roti into gosht swimming in oil, people in Najam Bagh in (then) Bombay were devouring chicken doused in white gravy, and while we wiped our hands with newspaper when done they polished off ice-creams and finished their meal in style. Small towns like Udaipur were not yet exposed to the culinary delights of big cities like Bombay. There the cooks, the bhatiyaraas, stirred magic into every exotic dish they made, while their poor country cousins in the hinterland churned out the same old laddu, gosht, roti and pulao. And on rare occasion biryani if a rich family was sponsoring the meal. The food was blah, to put it mildly. It could be argued that the people in Udaipur rebelled because they were bored to death with their food. If they had tasted the magic of Bombay delicacies they might today be licking the royal boot. Alas, the notion of dignity reached their mind first.

But dignity and freedom do not a fine dish make. For years even after the rebellion the Udaipur jamatkahna and reformist kitchens were stuck in a sort of culinary rut – cooking the same blasé fare. The food was simple, relatively healthy but stubbornly lacking in variety. With the passage of time as Bohras came into new money – mainly from Gulf countries, professions and opening up of the Indian economy – their prosperity came to be reflected in food. Community meals became more numerous and the menu more colorful. Today, chili chicken, anjeer halwa, ice-cream and such are common, but that sublime Bombay taste still eludes them.  

In our kitchens we continue to remain rather dull, using the same standard masala for meats, fish and vegetables and everything else in between. And of course our meat-centric bias dictates that we show no mercy to vegetables  - we overcook the daylights out of them. Daal is scorned with a passion. Our palida is deprived of drumsticks and our kadi  has yet to make an acquaintance with kadi patta. We still can’t tell kadi from kaadi, and dabba gosht for us is gosht in dabba, duh. Samosas (of the meat variety) is a specialty reserved for guests and we insist on eating haleem with roti.  Khichda for us is transgendered khichdi, and korma is karmo  with identity crisis. Nihari, saat handi paya, roast, lagan seekh (with green garlic tadka) and many such delicacies are still beyond our pale. In short, we may be the grand-daddy of reform movement but when it comes to fine cuisine we’re still learning to crawl.

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The chief cook: Abdeali Bhai taking a break.

Probably other small towns also share Udaipur’s culinary backwardness, a classic dichotomy of the periphery and the centre. And the centre is Mumbai, capital of Bohra cuisine and also the seat of the Dawat. This is no coincidence. Culture has a habit of tagging along with power. In Delhi under the Mughals the khansamas in the imperial kitchens experimented with food. Mixing Persian, Turkish and Central Asian influences with local ingredients they invented Mughlai Cuisine. The chefs at the famous Karim’s restaurant in Delhi trace back their lineage to the chefs in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Bohra cuisine, however, has no such imperial pedigree, but much of what they have can be attributed to their own self-proclaimed royals. The Dai and his extended family lord it over Bohras like latter-day Mughals, claiming divinity and a fanatical following, to boot. The Dawat is their little empire without borders, but within its hypothetical realms their writ of power, arrogance and extravagance rules. Of the many illicit demands they make on the community, the one that takes the cake is ziyafat – a royal feast for the Dai and his entourage.

Ziyafat is an elaborate, lavish affair where every detail is micro-managed by the handlers of the royal family. Fed-up Bohras have come to call it aafat (trouble) because of the headache and financial drain it brings upon the host. In ziyafat food is only a sideshow; the focus is always the money. Before the royal consent is given the host must agree to pay a huge (often negotiated) sum of money. The higher the status of the royal guest in the pecking order the greater the sum of money. The idea being that the royals are blessing you and your home with their divine visit. They are doing you a favour, and in return you must scrape and bow and shower them with money. And throw in fine food for good measure.

Hate them or envy them if you must but their love for fine food is perhaps their only redeeming feature. Bohra cuisine has developed mainly because of this ziyafat business and efforts to please the priestly palate. Over the last century Bohras from small towns and cities emigrated to Mumbai bringing with them their recipes and love for food. What is Bohra cuisine today is the result of the comingling and contesting influences of Suratis, Kathiawaris, Kapadwanjis, Dahodis and so many others. But despite its richness and variety the secrets of Bohra cusine exist only in the heads of women and the bhatiyaraas. Like much of their Fatimid esoteric doctrine it remains hidden. There is no formal, organised compilation of Bohra recipes, and the culture and history behind them.

There is one recipe book called, what else, Daal Chawaal Palidu. If anything it is a thin gruel, blandly listing ingredients and methods. It seems the author treated it like a cooking chore, and was in a hurry to finish it. Bohras, of course, can do better and deserve better. They deserve a recipe book to match their fantastic culinary heritage. What they need is a Bohra Madhur Jaffery or a Julia Child.

And what they also need is table manners, or shall we say thaal manners? Unfortunately, thaal  is hardly the place to flaunt one’s etiquette of fine dining. Eating from the same plate, digging fingers in the same dish, sharing spoons etc. doesn’t give manners or a sense of personal hygiene much of an elbow room. The most you could do is eat daintily with the tips of your fingers, keep a separate spoon, if available, if not you just forgo the delicacy or quickly put the food in your mouth without making contact with your tongue and lips, and without anyone noticing you. You have to be furtive lest you’re caught. And if you’re caught, be prepared to be shamed for being snooty.

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Eating in a thaal - fraught with challenges.

It would seem as if eating in a thaal is an open invitation to freely spread your saliva (and germs). Any attempt to protect yourself (if that is possible) is seen as some kind of betrayal, a break from sacred tradition. The whole experience is like negotiating a minefield, and when it is over you heave a burp of relief.

Of course, the thaal has its merits: It is economical, there’s practically no wastage of food, washing up and other logistics are easy, it promotes camaraderie and social bonding. It is a great social leveler – except you tend to sit with your own kind, and when you can’t, how far deep you put fingers in the plate and in the mouth spells your class. And above all, it is a custom with the weight of tradition and even religion behind it.

The Bohras it seems are as hopelessly stuck with the thaal as they are with their royals. The royals to their credit have at least raised the thaal dining to a whole new level - inventing ceremony and ritual around it and making the whole experience as palatable as possible. Still, no matter how you much you dress up this experience, it remains fraught with challenges. The chief among them is its utter lack of hygiene. God knows how many communicable diseases are being spread every time one sits down to eat. And sitting down itself is a problem, especially for old people suffering from arthritis. Not to mention the oil-rich, sugar and salt laden food that leads to all kinds of health problems. But then, it is this diet and its frequency that keeps their faith in good shape.

Yes, Bohra food is great but the manner of eating it is not so great. You can deep freeze the hope that things might change soon. In the meantime, we in Udaipur wait outside our jamatkhana ready for another bout of communal eating – eager to mix roti, chawal and gosht in the middle of the thaal and slurp it down without a care in the world.