Mominpura lapse of reason: Nagpur’s iconic food quarter

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ANURAG MALLICK goes on an eating binge at Nagpur’s Chandni Chowk to discover that it’s not just Mumbai that has a legendary Mohammad Ali Road

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I walked down Mohammad Ali Road past the all-too-familiar sights and smells of Ramzan food stalls, the smoky aroma of meat and the faithful returning from their evening prayer for their iftari (sunset meal). I was in Mominpura, but like some quirky separated-at-birth Bollywood twist, I found myself not in Mumbai, but 840 km east, in Nagpur. The similarity was uncanny – a mile long stretch of gastronomic delights, iconic shops that existed before India gained her freedom, flavours drawn from the Muslim heartland of Uttar Pradesh and colours so lurid they would make Baz Luhrmann seem monochromatic. It was only after a closer look at the food on offer that local nuances became more apparent.

Famous for its oranges and India’s geographical centre marked by a British erected pillar forgotten by the wayside, the city was never known for its Muslim cuisine. Yet Mominpura was hailed as the Chandni Chowk of Nagpur. Locals swore by Babbu Hotel and I soon found out why. A steady stream of customers lined up for biryani and tandoori take-aways. In between orders, Mirza Sharik Baig explained that the restaurant was started in 1946 by his grandfather Mirza Nasir Baig, a native of Rai Bareilly known to his friends as Babbu.

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Next door Bartania was established in 1942 by Mohammed Israel Bartania’s father Azim Mohammed Ismail Bartania, who designed the entire menu including specials like Bhutan Chicken and Mumtaz Chicken. Israel’s grandfather, philanthropist Sheikh Rahim was Nagpur’s first Muslim to visit Britain during the freedom struggle. After coming back, in the tradition of taking on surnames like Rangoonwala, Karachiwala and Burmawala, he adopted the name Bartania. He started a small eatery selling chai and sarvi, a snack that was a precursor to the kanda bhajiya or pakoda.

Today, the restaurant was known for its tandoori chicken, seekh kebabs and mutton chop, a rare triangular savoury of minced meat in a casing of mashed potato wrapped around a chaanp (chop) and deep fried. Earlier a tiny stall near Regent Talkies in Pardi also used to sell it, but now it was only available at Bartania. Israel elaborated on another local specialty – Jigri Mutton. An oleo of trotters, liver, kidney, mince, brain and other assorted pieces, each part used, was in a way attached to the other, hence the name jigri (close)! Israel’s son Mohd Iftikhar or Raja was the 4th generation in the trade while Raja’s younger brother Imran manned Hotel Bartania Caterers nearby, a snack counter selling mutton samosa, non-veg kebab and dal vada, for Rs.6 each.

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Right at the corner of Mominpura chowk stood Haji Idu Hotel, named after the man who started this humble tea stall in 1922, selling chiwda (spiced beaten rice) and chana (chick pea snack). Such was its popularity that in the 50’s tea used to be made in degs (cauldrons) and milk sold by drums. Alongside black and white photos of the founder and the old shop frontage, the green walls also displayed a framed poster of Tajuddin Baba, a Sufi mystic (1861-1925) known for his miracles and hailed as Nagpur’s shahenshah (king of kings).

Earlier this area was dominated by a kabrastan (graveyard) since it lay outside the main city that spread around Sakkardara and Raja Bhosle’s Mahal. In early 19th century, three brothers Ghulam Ali, Mohammad Saaduddin and Mohammad Saladuddin came to Nagpur from the princely state of Jhajjar. Being great scholars of Urdu and Persian, they joined the service of king Bapusaheb Bhosle III as administrators. They founded a public garden Jhajjar Bagh, locally known as Subedar ka Baada and built their residence Aina-e-Mahal, a well and a mosque (Masjid Ahle Hadees). It was on their vast estate that Mohammad Ali Sarai, Jama Masjid and Furqania madrasa were established.

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As Muslims flocked to the area, the transformation of Hansapuri to Mominpura (momin meaning true believer) was complete with nearly 95% of Nagpur’s mosques concentrated here! Over time it developed into a textile hub for the julaha community who worked on hand looms. With the emergence of cheap factory-made garments, they faced an economic slump and many migrated to the hotel industry. Ansar Hotel too was started 35 years ago by Haji Abdul Jabbar, who hailed from a family of bunkars (weavers). Surprisingly, it was one of the rare vegetarian Muslim restaurants I had encountered. Mohammed Qasim explained that their menu only had veg snacks like samosa, pakoda and mirchi bhajiya as people from all faiths came here and they didn’t want to turn away anyone.

Besides stacks of dudh feni and bhuji sevai (fried vermicelli) in an RGB palette, was a large platter of Arabi khajoor, a sweet made of khoa and maida, deep fried and dunked in sugar syrup, resembling dates from Arabia. A local variant of Mysore Pak, called Mysore, was pale yellow and brittle with holes like cheese. When asked about the timings, Qasim enquired if I could spot a shutter outside his shop. I didn’t. He laughed, ‘If there’s no door, what to open, what to shut? When cops come, we close it for 2 hours, else it’s khullam khulla (open 24X7)!’

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The street was full of wonderful stories, though not all were old timers here. The stylish Mulla ji moved from the railway station nearby to start a tiny stall 8 years ago, serving bhajiya, chiwda and special ‘pani kam, dudh zyada’ chai. He believed in better quality and minimal profit, because a person’s true earnings are ‘naam aur shohrat’ (name and fame). ‘That’s the only thing you take with you’, he said with a twinkle thrusting a glass into my hands. ‘Take it’, he cajoled, ‘After namaaz, this is where the majma (gathering) happens and you might have to wait half an hour to get tea.’

Nearby, manning marinated leg pieces in yellow, orange and green, was Mohammed Aqeel, who started Hyderabadi Tandoori Chicken 5 years ago. He was a local, but the hunar (skill) was from Hyderabad where he stayed for 13 years in Rampalli. The menu revolved around 51 types of masala that were not available locally. ‘Everyday, I cut about 100 kg of chicken. Even big establishments here don’t have as much consumption as I churn out from this footpath’, he added with pride.

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The latest entrant was Lucknowi Kebab Centre, opened just a few months ago by Mohammed Fahim of Moradabad. Starting off as a young trainee under his father Mohammed Shafique, he honed his skills in the restaurants of Delhi and catering orders. The beef korma was melt in your mouth though I didn’t try the Pineapple Chicken. A patron commented that you don’t get such a dish even in five star hotels. Fahim challenged that it was prepared in such a way that one wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the pineapple and the chicken!

People here took their food seriously and stories of patronage were legendary. When Haji Rahmatullah came from Kanda in UP and set up Kohinoor Hotel in 1944, it gained critical acclaim for its gulgula, a mildly sweet-salt snack that was an accompaniment to tea. Though it looked like an evolutionary step between a poori and a malpua, it had a softer, fluffier texture due to the tedious process of whipping the batter to a smooth consistency. People began calling it Haji Gulgula Hotel, forcing the establishment to adopt the new name.

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I trudged down to Hafeez Bakery, the oldest bakery in Vidarbha with the reverence of approaching a shrine. Started in 1927 by Abdul Hafeez Mistry, the busy shop churned out sheermal (saffron flavoured flat bread), rott (large biscuit), cookies, 8 varieties of rusk and assorted bakery items. Fourth generation owner Shakeel Ahmed smiled and said ‘Even if you haven’t heard of Hafeez, if you’ve come to Nagpur, Allah himself will guide you here.’ A middle-aged guy said he’s been coming since he was a child. Now he comes with his children. Outside, customers haggled over stacks of sevai and paav. I overheard someone asking if they had paav for Rs.18, instead of Rs.20. The salesman replied with saccharine sweetness that indeed it was available, but next year!

Walking past Hotel Tanveer, I finally came to another legend, MLC. Started by Yusuf Kidwai in 1950 whose forefathers came from Azamgarh in UP, the eatery used to be a jhopdi (hut) near the volleyball ground of the Muslim Library’s Canteen. Renovated in 2007, the food was still cooked on bhattis (wood-fired ovens), retaining the authentic taste. Rashid Ansari allowed a peep into the kitchen where dum biryani was being prepared. ‘Mutton sukka and biryani are the backbone of our hotel. They’re stars like Sachin and Sehwag while tandoori, kebabs and other items are like Zaheer, Yusuf Pathan, Yuvraj…’ Rashid bhai’s cricketing allegory was interesting yet dated, but his knowledge of local cuisine was impeccable.

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‘Don’t let the red colour of the mutton sukka scare you’, he advised. ‘It’s not that spicy. We use Chapata mirchi from Guntur instead of the pungent Bhiwapur chili, the soul of Umred’s Saoji cuisine (35km from Nagpur). Mutton MLC, decorated with cashew and raisins, is another local favourite.’ Ansari explained that though Nagpur’s other Muslim dominated areas like Madanpura and Ansar Nagar also had street food, they were cheaper than Mominpura, which offered much better quality.

Meanwhile the muezzin’s call announced an end to the Tarabi namaaz or taraweeh, special prayers during the month of Ramzan. Worshippers filed out of the imposing Jama Masjid to feast on firni, malpua and haleem (khichda), a slow-cooked porridge of meat, wheat, pulses and spices. As I snuck out of rush hour on Mohammad Ali Road, a hand tugged at my sleeve. It was Ajju bhai from the 80-year-old Haji Pan Shop offering a meetha paan for the road. ‘Long after the kebabs have been digested, the taste of my betel leaf will still linger on your tongue.’

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FACT FILE

At a glance: The largest city in Vidarbha and Maharashtra’s winter capital, Nagpur is renowned as Orange City. Occupying the geographical centre of the Indian peninsula marked by a Zero Milestone, it was used by the British to measure distances within the Indian subcontinent. Nagpur’s proximity to the tiger parks of Central India also makes it an important travel hub.

Explore: Things to Do

Historic sites: Sprawled across two tekdis (hillocks), Sitabuldi Fort was built by Appa Sahib Bhosle in mid 19th century and currently serves as a base for the Indian Territorial Army. It’s open to public only thrice a year – on 26 Jan, 15 Aug and 1 May (Maharashtra Diwas). The Dhamma Chakra Stupa (the largest in Asia) at Deekshabhoomi marks the spot where Dr. BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism with 3,80,000 followers on October 14, 1956. A Narrow Gauge Rail Museum on Kamptee Road showcases old steam engines, coaches and other railway artefacts, with a Toy Train for kids.

Lake tour: Nagpur is dotted by nearly a dozen lakes, each with its own character. The Bhosle kings of Nagpur developed Futala talaav or Telangkhedi Lake while the centuries old Shukrawari Lake was created by local ruler Chand Sultan. Enjoy boating, musical fountains and recreational facilities at the largest lake Ambazari to the west of town or visit Sonegaon Lake, a rich habitat for migratory birds in winter.

Nature trails: Ranked as one of the cleanest, greenest cities in India, Nagpur’s gardens and parks serve as the city’s lung spaces. Lake Garden at Sakkardara, Japanese Rose Garden at Civil Lines and Musical Garden at Surya Nagar are popular among locals. Northwest of Futala Lake is Satpura Botanical Garden, a biodiversity park spread over 25 hectares. The erstwhile royal garden of Maharajbagh has a small zoo, where one can adopt an animal for a year! An international standard safari park has been proposed at Gorewada Lake. Excursions like Pench and Tadoba Tiger Reserves are about 2½ hrs from the city.

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Shop: 

Dharampeth, Itwari, Sitabuldi and Sadar are Nagpur’s main markets. Poonam Chambers at Byramji Town and Anjuman Complex are large shopping centres in Sadar while the 9-lakh sq ft Empress Mall is the largest in eastern Maharashtra. In summers, buy the famous Nagpur orange while in off-season take home orange barfi from Haldiram, which has several sweet shops and restaurants around town.

Empress Mall
Empress City, Sir Bezonji Mehta Road, Near Gandhi Sagar Lake, Nagpur 440 018
Ph 0712-2736175, 2738558 http://www.kslindustries.com

Haldiram’s Hot Spot
Ground Floor, Shop No 12/13/14, Anjuman Complex, Sadar Bazar, Nagpur 440001 Ph 0712-2557 812/132, 2523896 http://www.haldirams.com

Sidebar: FYI

When to go: Summers are dry and scorching with temperatures touching 45 C. Monsoons between July and September provide some respite, though the winter season from October to February is the best time to travel.

Getting there: Nagpur’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport is connected by daily direct flights to over a dozen cities across India. Air Arabia flies to Sharjah and back 4 times a week.

Around town: Autos and pre-paid cabs are the best way to travel locally.

Tourist Information
MTDC, West High Court Road, Civil Lines, Nagpur 440 001 
Ph 0712 2533325 www.maharashtratourism.gov.in

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Where to Stay

Radisson Blu Hotel
7 Wardha Road, Vivekanand Nagar, Nagpur, Maharashtra 440015
Ph 0712 666 5888 http://www.radissonblu.com/hotel-nagpur
Upscale business hotel near the airport with spacious rooms, free Internet, all-day dining, swimming pool & spa

Tuli Imperial
Central Bazar, Ramdaspeth, Nagpur, Maharashtra 440001
Ph 0712 665 3555 http://www.tulihotels.com
A boutique hotel of the Tuli group, which also runs Tuli International at Sadar and Tiger Corridor resorts at Kanha and Pench

Hotel Centre Point
24, Central Bazar Road, Ramdaspeth, Nagpur, Maharashtra 440010
Ph 0712 242 0916 http://www.centrepointnagpur.com
Strategically located opposite the exit road from the airport, it’s a good transit point if you have to catch a flight

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Where to Eat

Babbu Hotel
Mominpura Chowk, Nagpur 440018
Ph 0712 2720163, 98600 20163, 93260 11364
Email sharikbaig@yahoo.co.in
Must try: Tandoori chicken, chicken/mutton biryani

Hotel Bartania
Mohammad Ali Road, Mominpura, Nagpur 440018
Ph 0712 2729786, 2732786, 98230 55786
Must try: Mutton chop, Murg Musallam, Haleem, Mutton Roganjosh, Dum biryani

Ansar Hotel
Mohammad Ali Road, Mominpura Chowk, Nagpur 440018
Ph 93706 95666
Must try: Samosa, pakoda, mirchi bhajiya, Arabi khajoor

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Gulgula Hotel
Mohammad Ali Road, Mominpura, Nagpur 440018
Ph 93735 53200, 93702 48000
Must try: Gulgula, rabdi, gulabjamun

Hyderabad Tandoori chicken
Mominpura Chowk, Nagpur 440018
Ph 93701 03133
5pm-11:30pm
Must try: Tandoori chicken, Hariyali chicken

Lucknowi Kebab Centre
Mohammad Ali Road, Mominpura, Nagpur 440018
Ph 95790 49088
Must try: Beef korma, Chicken Peshawari, Murgh malai, Pineapple chicken

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Hafeez Bakery
Mohammad Ali Road, Mominpura, Nagpur 440018
Ph 0712 2723365
Must try: Rott, Sheermal, rusk, cookies, bakery items

Hotel Tanveer
Near Masjid Ehde Hadees, Mominpura, Nagpur 440018
Ph 0712-220480, 9326007234
Must try: Biryani, tandoori, kebabs

ML Canteen
Mohammad Ali Road, Mominpura, Nagpur 440018
Ph 0712 2723395, 98231 14691
Must try: Chicken/Mutton dum biryani, Mutton sukka, Mutton MLC

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine. 

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