The delicious cuisine of the Dawoodi Bohra community remained largely unknown to outsiders till recently, when a few entrepreneurs took on the challenge of making it popular among food lovers in Mumbai
Evolved over hundreds of years and influenced by the community’s connections, both to the Middle East and Gujarat, Dawoodi Bohra cuisine was largely out of bounds for most outsiders. The only way one could enjoy it was at a Bohri home, wedding or festival. However, the last few years have seen a big change in Mumbai, where the community has its largest presence in India. While there are still no exclusive restaurants that serve Bohri food in the city, a few entrepreneurs are using innovative methods to take this delicious cuisine to a wider audience.
The Bohri dinner plate, or thaal, is a hula hoop-sized celebration of everything that is dear to the Bohra people – community, family and delicious food. These thaals, each shared by 7-8 people, are especially elaborate when celebrating a wedding or religious event.
Bohri Thaal by The Bohri Kitchen
The meal begins with a pinch of salt and is followed by a mithas (sweet dish), usually an ice cream, phirni, sheer khurma, halwa or a flaky malai khaja. Then comes the first kharas (savoury dish) which is almost always fried – chicken drumsticks, kheema samosas, bheja cutlets. The rounds of mithas and kharas continue depending on the generosity of the host.
The extraordinary procession of rich dishes generously sprinkled with nuts and cream, offer plenty of meat. The final kharas is followed by an elaborate meat dish – a raan, nalli nihari, kaju chicken; and the last dish of a Bohri thaal is always a rice preparation – dum biryani, daal-gosht or pulao.
Dabba Ghost by The Bohri Kitchen
Even today, several Bohri families eat their (decidedly less elaborate) daily meals from a thaal. They believe this form of communal eating is what holds this close-knit community together. This meat-loving community has several other food practices, whose origins are now lost with fading memories. For instance, birthdays in most Bohra households are celebrated with a chana bateta thulli (a celebratory dish of black chickpeas and potatoes) and sweet dalia (cereal) with dry fruits. The tenth day of Muharram is announced with the preparation of khichda (a slow-cooked stew of meat, lentils and spices). And the first day of each Bohra calendar month is marked with a bowl of masoor chawal (lentils and rice).
Pulao by The Curry Brothers
Despite their formidable presence in India, the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, in their resplendent ridas (brightly coloured skirt and cape worn by Bohra women) and distinctive gold rimmed white caps, keep to themselves. As a result, one is more likely to have eaten sushi or guacamole than an authentic dal chawal paleedu – even in a city as integral to the Bohra community as Mumbai.
Chicken Biryani by The Bohri Kitchen
Was a Bohri meal just too elaborate, or complicated to take outside their home kitchens? Or was it that this community did not have a single food-minded businessman?
Even as we grappled with these questions, Munaf Kapadia arrived with The Bohri Kitchen (TBK), and an invitation for us to shed our shoes and inhibitions for an authentic Bohri thaal. Started about four years ago as an experiment, this former Googler took the bold step of inviting strangers into his home for a meal. Kapadia wanted to use his mother Nafisa Kapadia’s cooking to finally shine a spotlight on his community’s distinctive dining methods. “Food, I believe, diminishes the line between different cultures and it gives you an insight on how cultures overlap,” says Kapadia.
Smoked Mutton Kheema Patti Samosas by The Bohri Kitchen
The TBK thaal isn’t set on the floor, and diners are given their own plates and cutlery to eat with. So, while the experience isn’t quite authentic, the food certainly claims to be, and TBK became an overnight success. It wasn’t long before the Kapadias’ Colaba home played host to diners every weekend, and Munaf and his mother were travelling across India with their Bohri thaal. TBK’s signature dishes are now even available on popular home delivery services, as well as in restaurants such as Mumbai Vintage and The Flea Bazaar Café.
The success of TBK spawned more Bohri dining experiences, albeit in the home-based supper club or pop up formats. Hansa Shahani (now Pardiwala) collaborates with traditional Bohri bhatiyaras (oldstyle caterers) to bring festive thaals to Mumbai apartments. The Mighty Bohri Thaal and The Big Spread are also examples of Bohri families selling a traditional meal experience through community food sites such as Authenticook.
The Tha’l Co. is a rare example of a Bohri cuisine restaurant. Offering both a buffet as well as a thaal experience, they also serve individual “thalis” to make the cuisine accessible to solo diners. The owner, Avinash Bhatia, grew up with a large number of Bohras in his neighbourhood and his recipes for khichda and patvelia mutton (mutton cooked in colocasia leaves) are borrowed from the Bohri kitchens he grew up eating in.
There are a few others too – The Curry Brothers’ menu includes dishes from Khoja cuisine; The Bombay Canteen included a Bohristyle boti samosa in their recent Bakri Eid dinner; Hatimy’s in Chennai serves a selection of Bohri dishes for the local community; and when Bohra chefs such as Musakir Khan and Zohair Bharmal are posted at jobs outside Mumbai, they organise the odd Bohri Food Festival or two.
Daal Ghost by The Curry Brothers
These stray Bohri cuisine crusaders aside, an opportunity to taste a food that has been in India for hundreds of years remains elusive. In these times, where chefs are looking at India’s storied past to create inventive food for their hip restaurants, perhaps there is hope that the much-coveted Bohri cuisine will not be restricted to wedding celebrations and family jamans for much longer.