Our exploration of the culinary-cultural space of Nizam Restaurant continued even after I went to Presidency College and stayed at the Hindu Hostel, made famous by many ex-boarders, including Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President. Here of course there was no discipline at all. Indeed on the door of our room we had put up a notice in bold fonts: Avoid Unnecessary Entrance, to warn the hostel warden, a professor of chemistry at the Presidency College, of unfortunate scenes he might have to witness if he suddenly made the mistake of entering our room unannounced. Therefore once in college we could visit Nizam anytime of the day, but actually did that mostly in the evenings. So, we graduated to Nizam’s famous beef / khiri roll – small chunks of beef first lightly roasted on open flames, then fried on a 4-inch thick iron Tawa (flat pan), that was in use since 1932, with chopped onions, and then stuffed and rolled into a crisp paratha with a sprinkle of fresh lime. I have no clue what they serve in heaven, but Nizam’s Khiri roll must have been a strong contender.
Khiri is the udder of a cow, and grilled on open fire it melts like butter in the mouth. Udderly, butterly Khiri, we used to say! But Nizam for some of us was not just a culinary joint, it was a space where our Gods shaped our minds. So, when in 2006 I first saw the ‘No Beef’ sign in Nizam it didn’t come only as an assault on my personal freedom of making my culinary choices, it was writing on the wall for very disturbing days ahead, days that we are now experiencing under the cunningly fascist designs of the Hindutva brigade. A myriad Beef dishes have been a part of quintessential Indian cuisine since the Vedic period, from north India to Kerala to the north-eastern hill states. It is amazing that while all major Mughlai restaurants in Kolkata, which you would imagine to have a sizable Muslim clientele, are No Beef restaurants, many of the city’s plush continental joints happily serve beef. The politico-economic message of this can’t go amiss. While Nizam was mauled in 2006, I just read that one of India’s finest beef heritage joints, Tunde Kababi, has now been forced to take beef out of its menu also.
Indeed Nizam’s beef roll or the century old Aminia’s beef nehari (beef chunks cooked overnight on slow charcoal fire) of Kolkata, Tunde Kababi’s beef galauti kebab of Lucknow, the beef suti kabab (a culinary marvel prepared by attaching chunks of minced beef to fine cotton threads and then roasted) of Patna’s miniscule joint Shan-e-Hilal, the Kerala dry beef curry cooked in coconut oil, the beef biriyani of Al Hamdulillah in Hyderabad’s Nampally, the Goan beef vindaloo, or the chili beef that I ate in Kohima, Nagaland, are India’s invaluable intangible heritage dating back to thousands of years. In a sweeping totalitarian design, planned and executed by a miniscule portion of even the Hindu upper caste, let alone the whole population, masquerading as the majority, an unprecedented assault has been launched on this heritage, an inseparable part of the very essence of India. There are many many reasons to be deeply proud of this unique human-animal-bird-insect-plant-land-water combination named India, and its food, with its numberless variety, is certainly one of them. The attack on our food is a jab at the heart of India.
And the dish named Halim is a glorious example of this heritage of the Indian subcontinent, in comparison to which the Iranian Halim that my Tehran friend Sayad treated me to at another ‘famous restaurant’ tasted like sweetened arrowroot!
So, when Mehdi declares about Khanah-i-Sabz’s specialty cuisine I naturally squirm. But I am wrong. What arrives is bizarre: not the food but the way in which it is served: a large plate and on it a large bowl, a spoon and set of steaming mortar and pestle! The last time I saw mortar and pestle used in our home was by my grandpa, who had lost all his teeth but not his craze for the after-meal obligatory paan (a heady combination of chopped betel nut, catechu paste, a single clove, a single pod of green cardamom and a sprinkle of aromatic tobacco, wrapped in fine quality betel leaf, to be chewed together), which our domestic help Ketu used to grind fine in a black-stone mortar and pestle for him. Here the pestle I find is of heavy steel. And the bread arrives separately. One set for each.
In a moment a familiar smell floats in from my childhood: the smell of the quintessential Bengali kochi panther jhol! Now almost as endangered in Bengal, as beef is in India, this used to be a runny curry of meat of the Bengal-bred small goats, with a few chunks of potatoes in it. In our childhood that used to be the Sunday delicacy in our home. Ever since fat and bearded huge goats, brought up on a diet of chickpeas, inundated the Bengal market, largely brought from our adjacent state of Bihar, and we grew the taste for riwazi meat (chewy meat with coarse fibre and a thick layer of fat), the kochi panthar jhol has virtually disappeared from Bengal. Some up-market Bengali cuisine restaurants do serve a dish of the same name, but that’s really nostalgia-marketing and no match for the real stuff that in most Bengali homes used to be invariably cooked by mothers. The signature of that dish was in its simplicity, as simple as mother’s love!
Digging into the mortar, from which was steaming out my childhood Sundays, I find chunks of meat, not of goat but lamb, a few pieces of potatoes and lots of garbanzo beans, which we in India call Kabuli chana, floating in a runny reddish-yellow stew. Biting into the soft meat I realize the flavor of lamb is a shade darker than goat meat, otherwise it’s absolutely the Iranian version of the kochi panthar jhol, and its simplicity is also reflected in its name Aab-Goosht, meat in water! But I sincerely can’t figure out why on earth is it served in a mortar and pestle?! Apparently the eater is supposed crush all the content inside the mortar with the pestle and pour the resulting mash in the bowl and then eat it scooping it out with the spoon quickly following it with a piece of Sanagak bread. Mehdi claims Aab-Goosht, or Dizi, as it is also called, must be boiled on slow fire in stone mortars to obtain the right flavor.
I take it with a pinch of salt, but later a few weeks on I find in Neyshabur shop after shop selling designer Aab-Goosht mortar!