Ramadan in Old Delhi: India’s oldest mosque bursts into life as the sun sets

Hundreds gather to break their fast in the large courtyards of Jama Masjid during Ramadan to break fast together.

Families sit around large sheets of cloth spread out on the flagstones, so that the iftar meal seems almost like a picnic.  Harish Tyagi/EPA
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NEW DELHI // As the sun sets on another Ramadan day in Old Delhi, the Jama Masjid springs to life.

Nearly 360 years old and India’s biggest mosque, it has massive courtyards where hundreds gather to break their fast.

Families sit around large sheets of cloth spread out on the flagstones, turning the iftar meal into a picnic.

The food varies little from one group to the next: bowls of dates and sliced fruit, bottles of cold sherbet, casseroles of biryani and rich meat gravies, plates of crackers and bowls of nuts.

Congregating at the Jama Masjid during Ramadan evenings has long been a family tradition, said Nazir Ali, a 35-year-old schoolteacher who lives near the mosque.

Mr Ali’s family, clustered around their meal, is a large one: his parents, his wife and two children, his brother and sister-in-law and their three children.

“You get a sense of community when you come here in the evenings,” Mr Ali said, gesturing towards the people around him. “It’s crowded, but it’s still very calm, and everybody is happy. To me, this sense of community is really what Ramadan is about.”

However, for a foodie seeking excellent Ramadan food the place to be is not the Jama Masjid but Matia Mahal, a narrow and crowded alley that leads off the mosque’s perimeter.

Matia Mahal is home to several restaurants that are popular throughout the year; among them are Karim’s and Al Jawahar, which serve giant kebabs, spicy and oily mutton curries and fresh-baked bread.

But Matia Mahal really comes into its own during Ramadan, when dozens of temporary food vendors set up shop along the length of the alley, specifically to cater to people breaking their fast.

You could start with chicken soup from one of the men selling the broth out of steel drums perched on the back of their bicycles. The soup is peppery and thin, to be sipped out of a glass rather than spooned from a bowl.

“It’s light, which makes it easy on the stomach after a day of fasting,” one of the vendors said. “Then you can move on to the heavy food.”

Bakeries sell fresh bread, often still warm from the ovens. The sheermal — a saffron-flecked, mildly sweet bread from Kashmir — is particularly popular.

Outside these bakeries, groups of Old Delhi’s poor gather to secure their meals, depending upon the seasonal spirit of generosity. Bakery workers emerge and distribute sheaves of bread, and there are always second helpings available.

“It’s the least we can do,” said Waqar Ahmed, an assistant at a Matia Mahal bakery — an establishment so small that it doesn’t even have a signboard or a name. “We think about God so much during Ramadan, and it’s natural to want to help other people, as a result of that.”

Walking down the alley, you can fill up just by grazing on snacks sold at shops and restaurants.

There are flat metal trays piled high with samosas — triangles of pastry filled with meat or potatoes; saucers of sliced fruit sprinkled with salt and pepper; pieces of deep fried chicken, still sizzling after being scooped out of hot oil and ladled onto plates.

Possibly the most popular dish in Matia Mahal is nihari, a stew that was first created in this area in the 18th century. Containing tender chunks of buffalo meat or mutton, the stew is simmered for hours and served with sides dishes of bone marrow or spiced brain. Tureens of nihari occupy centre stage at most Matia Mahal restaurants.

When Ramadan falls in the winter months, a bowl of hot nihari is comforting and rejuvenating. But in the summer, and in the crowds of Matia Mahal, the spices and chillies in the nihari make foreheads sweaty and set tongues on fire.

A popular solution is roohafza, a bright pink fruit squash flavoured with rose water and mixed with iced milk.

For dessert, sweet shops stock small hillocks of khajla, a crisp pancake made of fried, coiled strands of vermicelli. The khajla goes into a shallow saucer, which is then filled with phaini, sweetened milk flavoured with cardamom and studded with pistachios. The phaini softens up the khajla, so that spoonfuls are alternately crunchy and soft.

By this time, night has fallen. The picnickers at the Jama Masjid have folded up their tablecloths and gone home.

The main thoroughfares of Old Delhi are slowly falling silent.

But in Matia Mahal, diners continue to eat and chat.

They’ll return just before sunrise, to fortify themselves with food once more before greeting the next day of Ramadan.