Ever since I can recall, my school and university friends were sure to comment on two things — one, my unique hijab i.e. the ‘rida’; second, a request to invite them to my home to partake a meal in the ‘thaal’.
The specialty food items inherent with the Dawoodi Bohras adds to the uniqueness of the community — a trait which comes second only to its distinct dress code, its knack for trade and penchant for peace.
The community’s cuisine reflects its influences from its early settlements in Yemen and India which is the reason for its Arabic, Mughlai and Gujarati sway. Today, no matter whether a Dawoodi Bohra resides in USA, Australia, Sri Lanka or Pakistan — their distinct food practices go with them to all parts of the globe.
“People who give you their food, give you their heart.” — Cesar Chavez
But Bohra cuisine is much, much more than its renowned fried chicken, malidas, and daal chawal palidu. It is the manner of eating in the community makes each culinary experience distinct.
Step into a Bohra household or a Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat Khana hosting a wedding or even a fateha meal — you will find guests seated around a safra or cloth on which there will be a kundli — a raised round platform whereon is placed a ‘thaal’ — a big circular metal dish.
Before the meal commences, the host will go around to wash the hands of each guest in a chilumchee lota — a metal surahi-like pourer and a holder. The seating of members around the thaal with folded legs conveys reverence and gratitude for the bounties of Allah and eating together epitomises equality and unity.
The meal begins (and ends) with a pinch of salt served in a minute sized dish. This tasting of salt at the inception is a sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), is known to heighten senses in one’s taste buds in order to make the meal a relished one as well as ward off 72 diseases.
In a thaal, one dish will be served reverentially at a time. Only when one course is finished by sharing it among the seated seven or eight members will the next item on the menu be eaten. This ensures that no food is wasted and that after one course is completed, there is a heightening anticipation for the next scrumptious dish.
Food items are synonymous with occasions, events and dates. You never have to wait for dessert for it is always served first and one sweet which is cooked on festivals and birthdays is a nutritious halwa called lachka made by cooking soaked wheat in ghee and gur and garnished with almonds and pistachios.
Kalamra is made consistently in the holy month of Rabiul Awal which is a yoghurt based rice pudding. Sweet dishes are followed by a savoury item — a popular one being the Bohra fried chicken. These meaty marinated chicken pieces are dipped in white flour and egg and fried until golden brown and can give any other fried chicken a run for its money.
There is also an inclination towards meat items — mutton stews with gravy for wheat rotis to be dipped in are a common inclusion in everyday Bohra menus. No meal is complete without rice which has the ability to cure disease. Even though biryanis and pulaos are relished, on the first night of the new Islamic month or any religious occasion there is sure to be Daal Chawal palidu. This spicy daal stew with Gujarati origins is presented with a serving of khichidi which is a steamed mix of rice and red masoor daal.
Certain traditions like cooking of masoor daal (black lentils) on Mondays are also followed as it is said to soften hearts. There is a marked preference for home-made, healthy wheat rotis made by the women of the house — you will hardly find any Bohra household regularly partaking tandoor rotis or naans which are fattening.
There is also a ritual of almond sharbat being offered to wedding parties or baraats as a welcome drink made from soaked and ground almonds in a sugar base and served chilled. On any happy occasion the tasting of the salt in the beginning is also followed by sharing sudunno — a small plate with a bed of soft, white rice sprinkled with sugar.
There are certain thaal etiquettes which the community takes very seriously. It is considered to be discourteous to sit cross-legged during a repast or to get up from the middle of the meal. The thaal is only placed when there are members seated at the safra and never before as food should never be kept waiting. Except for ice creams, soups and yoghurt, most items — even rice — are eaten by hand and not spoons.
Apart for a deep love and grounded respect for food, it is only natural that there exists a deep-seated inclination towards hospitality in the Dawoodi Bohras. Inviting ones brethren for a meal is considered to be one of the most winsome deeds in the eyes of Allah as per the injunctions of Islam. The concept being that the need for food and nourishment is one of the most inherent wants of any human — rich or poor. This is also the philosophy behind the unique community kitchen of the Dawoodi Bohras which began five years ago, where all members contribute according to their own means, as a result of which wholesome food or thaalis are delivered to 90,000 households across the world.
So mealtime around a Dawoodi Bohra thaal is much more than appetising food — it is sharing and coming together; it is inviting humility, equality and unity. And certainly, tantalising ones taste buds which will leave you with a memorable aftertaste of the aroma of Arabia, the flavour of Gujarat and the spice of the subcontinent long after the feast is over.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 2nd, 2015