My husband and I went traveling in south east Asia in December 2010 starting in Singapore. The trip was as much a food odyssey as it was about sight-seeing and discovery. I’ll be chronicling all the amazing and disgusting things we ate over the next few weeks on this blog.
I want to start first with a smashing Bohra (a sect of Indian Shia Muslims) meal in Singapore. The first day of the Bohra calendar happened to fall on one of the evenings we were there and we were invited over by some wonderful relatives for the biggest meal in the Bohra year.
To those not accustomed to Bohra food habits let me explain some terminology. A traditional Bohra meal is eaten in a “thaal” or gigantic, circular steel tray which also doubles up as a plate. So everything is served on it and you pull food off of the various plates on the tray to your little corner. The odd thing is that a traditional meal starts with dessert and can often end with soup and rice followed by fruit. The catch-all term for anything sweet is “mithaas” (in the Gujarati language) and for anything savoury it is “kharaas.” And Bohras love their food so much that the standard joke in the community is “bay (two) mithaas, bay kharaas, and then bypass”… as in surgery.
So the meal starts with a mithaas then goes onto a kharaas which is generally chicken and then you move onto roti with a curry or you could move straight onto rice and soup. All this is always accompanied by a salad or some other finger food on the side. But that’s a simple meal. The special meal for “pehli tareek” or the first night of the year means that the mithaas-kharaas routine can go on and on till you’re positively bursting because on this night you are obligated to create atleast 21 dishes! Some Bohra women, truly committed to feeding the family can even shoot for 52!
However, what constitutes a “dish” can be quite unorthodox on this night because people want to reach the magic number. For instance, you can throw some almonds in a bowl and it can count as a dish. Everyone does random things like that to make up the numbers but there will always be some amazing fried fish and around 10 – 12 core dishes that are sure to transport you to food heaven. The star that shone brightest for me that night in Singapore was the strawberry falooda.
So to be a Bohra is to love food. This joke illustrates the point yet again. A few Bohras die and are on their way to heaven. But on the way up, they have to go past hell and while they are doing so, it happens to be dinner time there and they hear someone yell, “Dinner’s ready!” The Bohras quickly abandon plans of eternal bliss and enter the gates of hell. Better to eat in hell than arrive hungry in heaven.