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Mumbai food: An afternoon with travelling Halwa Puri makers

They never set up permanent shop, luring a different crowd every day at dargah fairs into trying their Halwa Puri. Phorum Dalal and Sayyed Sameer Abedi spend an afternoon watching them prep

At noon last Friday, the street outside Pankhe Shah dargah on LBS Marg in Ghatkopar sits barren, waiting for the crowds to arrive for the ongoing week-long urs mela (fair) in memory of the saint around six in the evening.

A staffer prepares the puri, which is served with a sweet rawa halwa, outside Pankhe Shah Dargah in Ghatkopar
A staffer prepares the puri, which is served with a sweet rawa halwa, outside Pankhe Shah Dargah in Ghatkopar

Already, aluminium thaals of bright orange mounds are being set up as oil bubbles in kadhais on soot-coated stoves across 25 stalls owned by ‘travelling cooks’ or the famed Halwa Puriwallas.Today is the last day of the fair. Then, they will move to another venue in the city or set out to traverse the country.

Halwa Puri stalls ready for business outside Pankhe Shah dargah in Ghatkopar; A worker decorates the halwa with dry fruits, tuti fruity, coconut shavings and dates. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Halwa Puri stalls ready for business outside Pankhe Shah dargah in Ghatkopar; A worker decorates the halwa with dry fruits, tuti fruity, coconut shavings and dates. pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Most of them are third generation sellers, who make a living by travelling across dargah fairs through the year. While some have just returned from Satara and Sangli, a few have plans to leave for Kolkata next week.

Most dargahs in India have a calendar marked by eight special events. These include death anniversaries of saints, Ramzan, Muharram, etc. While Halwa Puri doesn’t carry a religious connotation, it is an age-old tradition, say the cooks, passed down from the Mughals.

Faizan Fakir Khan is a third generation owner of the shop Mahim Yaadgar.

"My father taught me how to make Halwa Puri when I was 17. I don’t know anything else. We have been doing this for 40 years, since my grandfather moved to Mumbai in 1962," says the 38-year-old resident of Govandi.

Dressed in a kurta pyjama and white taqiyah, his words come out in a jumble, thanks to the tobacco stuffed in his mouth. Every few minutes he spits out a jet of maroon.

Stirring pot of sweet
A sugar rush is guaranteed by simply watching the preparation that uses equal amount of water and sugar. "Fifteen kilograms of sugar is stirred in a pot containing 15 kilos of water. Once the sugar dissolves thoroughly, we add five kilos of rawa. It take a total of one hour to prepare. Bas aur kuch nahin lagta," says Faizan.

A generous dose of food colour is added to the halwa to give it the bright orange finish. At one time, around 40 kg of it is prepared, and sold at R30 per 250 gm.

Faizan’s brow creases when we ask him why the halwa is prepared only during special occasions. "Shakkar kitna jaata hai, dekha hai? Diabetes ho jayega," he says.

While there are six hours to go for the crowds to come in, ever so often, a car stops to pick up a parcel.

Dough diaries
While the halwa cooks, we scout for a stall that has begun preparing the puris, each 24 inches large.

A shy Mohammed Gulzar, beating the heat in weathered banyan and pants rolled up to his knees, directs his body weight to his hands that are kneading the dough. He folds in salt and dalda. "Andaz se dalta hoon. Chaar saal se bana raha hoon," the 20-year-old who arrived from Azamgarh to work for his sister’s husband, tells us.

He divides the dough into 750 gm balls and then takes a 15-minute break. The second round begins with flattening each ball before smearing it with a sheath of dalda. Folded into half, it’s then flattened again. Folded for the last time, the roundels sit to the side of the thaal for 30 minutes.

A little further down, a worker at Faizan’s shop is readying his batch for frying.

He takes the roundel and flattens it with his hand. It is now the size of a 12-inch pizza base. The elasticity doesn’t allow it to retain his finger marks for more than a few seconds.

He flings the base from arm to arm in almost a rhythmic dance, making it gradually thinner and larger. Like a mother pulling a quilt gently over her child, he spreads it into the kadhai. It is an exact fit. The puri bubbles before it’s flipped over with a massive wooden pin.

Sweet pairing
By now, the halwa has been plated on the thaal, and staffers are garnishing it with dry fruit, gren and red tuti fruity, dried cherries, dates, cashew nuts, kismis, coconut shavings and magaj (watermelon seeds).

Four shops away, 40-year-old Kalam Khan is chiding a worker. "If the sugar is less, the halwa will turn into sloppy lapsi. Make it tight. For that, you need sugar!"

The Kurla resident tell us about his grandfather Fasiullah Khan and his days in Azamgarh. "During the war, my family had fled to Rangoon (now Burma). That’s where they’d hawk the halwa. At a time, 30 to 40 kg is made and since it is a sweet delicacy, it has a 30-day shelf life. By the end of the mela, leftovers are ours to savour," he smiles. And his paunch is proof.
Kalam, who has returned from a fair in Satara, plans to rest for the next four days. "Something will come up. We have a line to the dargahs, and they keep us informed of upcoming events."

Fifty-six-year-old Mohammed Safi, who mans the counter of a bakery, calls out to us. "In UP, the puri is called lachui, and it is usually served with aloo bhaji."

History class
The dargah trustee is not a stooped figure, but 41-year-old Shadab Shamsher Khan says, "When the young joined the committee, we wanted to bring about a change. You will not see a single poster or banner with our faces as promotion. We believe in [doing] work," says Shadab. The committee charges each stall owner R3,000 as rental for the week, providing furniture to set up shop too.

Each stall takes home a profit of Rs 1.5 lakh by the end of the fair, which sees a moving crowd of 10,000 people. "Around 40 per cent of our visitors are non-Muslims," he says.

Despite his BA in history, Shadab isn’t sure of how the Halwa Puri tradition was born in India. "It started around the time of Amir Khusrau," he says vaguely. "The Muslims hold the fairs in the memory of saints. The death of a sufi marks visal or a union with the beloved," he explains.

The lights have come on and the streets are getting populated. We turn to leave, and spot a cook making puri directly on a tawa. "Why aren’t you frying it?" we ask.

"Some customers are now watching their weight. We must adapt to survive."

How it all comes together

1)

A cook binds the dough with dalda, weighing 750 g to 1.5 kg

2)

The dough is spread out evenly on a thal with the gentle pressure of the fingers

3)

The rolled out maida disc is flung from arm to arm to give it a stretch
The rolled out maida disc is flung from arm to arm to give it a stretch

4)

It is gently released into a giant kadhai of bubbling oil
It is gently released into a giant kadhai of bubbling oil

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