The first of Alex Leonard’s special seven-course tasting menu as visiting chef at The Table, one of Mumbai’s most elegant restaurants, offered three vegetable-based bites. There was a glossy chunk of honeydew topped with parsley verde, a purple leaf of radicchio cradling black sesame seeds dusted with sour raw mango powder, and in the middle there was a narrow knuckle of leek, blanched and pan-seared and topped with a dab of malai, essentially a cream made by skimming layers of fat from boiling whole milk.
In town for a week for his turn at The Table, Alex—the chef de cuisine of Brooklyn, New York’s much-coveted 12-seat Blanca—had tasted malai for the first time three nights earlier, a Wednesday, when we’d gone together, along with Alex Sanchez (The Table’s American executive chef) and Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi (one of Mumbai’s best food writers) for a walking tour around the old Muslim Quarters. With the end of Ramazan fast approaching, these already congested neighborhoods were crammed along Mohammed Ali Road, Bohra Mohalla and Minari Masjid beyond capacity with diners from across the city angling for the famously meat-heavy dishes of the city’s Muslim communities.
They’d come for tender, fat-sweating kebabs of mincemeat, liver, udder and kidney; for sandwiches of spiced and stewed lamb on slabs of dense bread, for hand-churned guava and custard apple ice creams, for curried brains and biryani and the rich bone marrow stew known as nihari. At Tawakkal Sweets we had a sweet porridge of broken rice called phirni, which we ordered with an extra serving of malai, not unlike the cream that would turn up on that leek some days later.
Despite New York’s reputation for offering every imaginable cuisine from around the world, the options in Indian cooking are depressingly limited. Authentic regional cooking from across the Subcontinent exists, for the most part, pretty far afield. Even those areas—Staten Island for Sri Lankan; Parkchester for Bengali—reflect just a fraction of the spectacular jigsaw puzzle that is India’s culinary map.
Alex, for his part, admitted that he’d probably never tried anything like real Indian food before arriving. What he’d heard about mostly were the dire digestive consequences of eating too boldly on a first trip. When we spoke a few days later, he told me, “as soon as we started eating, all that fear sort of went away.”
Many Mumbaikars seem to forget that these Muslim delicacies exist for most of the year, or at least forget how accessible they are. Though Iftar brings with it a special atmosphere, most of the food we ate on our walk that night came from institutions that churn out the same marvelous food throughout the year, many of them generations-old, single-dish specialists.
The succulent beef kebabs at Sarvi (Nagpada Junction, Byculla Opp. Nagpada Police Station), pressed around flat metal skewers and cooked vigorously over glowing coals, haven’t changed in nearly a century. Taj Ice Creams (Khara Tank Road, Bohra Mohallah, Mohammad Ali Road) in Bohra Mohalla, adjacent to the famous antiques market, Chor Bazaar, has churned their fruit-flavored ice creams the old-fashioned way, over a mixture of ice and salt, for even longer, producing sweet, cold creams of remarkably vivid fruit flavors (the guava and lychee flavors are especially exciting).
The sandwiches at Jilani (Khara Tank Road, Bohra Mohallah, Mohammad Ali Road) and the sweets at Tawakkal (Khara Tank Road, Bohra Mohallah, Mohammad Ali Road) and the famous offal kebabs at Bar-B-Q Corner (Khara Tank Road, Bohra Mohallah, Mohammad Ali Road), all along the same lane as Taj, are also available throughout the year. Watching the kebabwallahs move row after row of fresh kebabs over the coals, Alex noted the grills and skewers reminded him of Yakitori. Every culture has its version of meat on a stick.
The Iftar festivities are at their most frenetic (a euphemism for chaotic, really) in the lanes around the elaborately painted white-and-green façade of the Minari Masjid, about a 15 to 20-minute walk from Bohra Mohallah. Here, impossible crowds shove their way between choc-a-block stalls where skewers of chicken in jarring shades of green and red hang over plastic tables, alongside cages loaded with more birds that disappear as the night wears on.
Fires rage under broad, seething tawas (large, rounded, slightly concave pans) that throw smoke up to be caught under overhanging tarps. Most of these are not places you’d particularly want to eat—the food will be made in bulk and under pretty dubious conditions—but even here, there are gems to be found.
Hindustan Chota Kebab fries up tiny fritters of chickpea flour and mutton seasoned with a secret combination of god-only-knows how many spices. Chinese & Grill (IM Merchant Road, Minari Masjid; the inside is air-conditioned, which makes this one of the more luxurious joints around, and, at least during Iftar, a much needed break from the steaming street outside) brings out its rich nihari—unctuous with marrow, a hunk of mutton shank stewed practically to oblivion—in a little silver pale, a whimsically traditional touch.
Even Roshni and I, both of us familiar with this style of cooking, were caught off guard by a dessert called sandaal being sold by a 16-year-old just outside Chinese & Grill: steamed cakes of fermented rice and milk batter topped with cream and almonds—airy and just slightly sweet.
Aside from the sandaal (the only thing we sampled that would be available exclusively during Iftar) these dishes form the core repertoire of what most people in India know as Muslim cuisine, though they’re far from representative of the immense diversity of India’s Muslim communities. But this is celebration food. As Alex pointed out, eating for festivals is “much more about families and friends enjoying each other’s company than about eating delicious food.”
I asked if he’d be taking any of the flavors or techniques he found while eating around Bombay back home to his experimental kitchen in Bushwick. “I know when I get back to New York it’ll sort of start to settle in,” he told me. Which is to say: If you ever find yourself eating at the Chef’s Table at Blanca, keep an eye out for that leek.
Michael Snyder is based in Mumbai, and covers the India beat for Travel + Leisure.