In the beginning was the circular perfection of the thaal. Supreme like the full moon in the velvet blanket of the night sky and mounted on a platform called the kundali. We washed our hands with the chelamchi, sat on the ground around the thaal and before reaching out for the food placed within it, we savoured a pinch of salt. Only then did we indulge in the feast.
Thus perhaps would a member of the Bohra community of centuries past describe the formal meal. So too would a modern-day Bohri.
As someone on the outside, it’s easy for me to say: there’s something in age-old rituals that draw me to a feast. I’ve read fascinating online accounts from members of this colourful community, packed with reasons to revisit the tedium of the communal dining affairs. But it’s just all this that fascinates those looking in. Like passwords that gain you entry into a much desired Paradise. It’s not the ritual alone – consider the cuisine itself, so much a reflection of the journey of the community across geographies that span parts of Africa arcing through Yemen and Gujarat.
In the Bohra feast, kharas and mithas, savoury and sweet dishes are traditionally served in the run up to the main course with the sweet dish, notably grain-based puddings such as malida and kalamro, opening all proceedings. Rice makes an important statement in many courses in the form of biryanis and pulaos. Combined with meats, these pieces are particularly hard to ignore – take kheema khichdi or mutton biryani or that standalone meat treat that beats all others: dabba gosht.
Yet as with many Indian kitchens that are open to experimenting with meats, the Bohri school of cookery keeps up an exciting engagement with vegetarian cuisine too. And it’s not just the odd vegetable cutlet. I have to cite a veritable grand dame of Bohri cuisine - Dal Chawal Palidu.
Connoisseurs of food always approach a meal with reverence. With the Bohras – this approach is codified: eating is ibadah, an act of devotion. Whether you had a doubt or not, the Bohri Feast in ITC Rajputana’s Chandravanshi Pavilion (24th August to 2nd September) is just the place to head to for a taste of sacred living history.