Words Lubaina B.
Illustration Fatema A.
Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, where I grew up is a bustling ‘happening’ neighbourhood today. When I was growing up, it was however out in the boonies and beyond. So chances of finding a Bohra in the vicinity were as rare as finding a real live Oompa loompa.
So all things Bohra (including chakri, lota and envelopes) were imported as it were from Mumbai. Then there were those things that were created at home. Of these my favourite was malai nu khajlu.
The thaal in the Shipchandler home on navu waras or shabe-barat was loaded with traditional delicacies that my mother pulled out of a hat on those special occasions. Now when I prepare my thaal in Mumbai, I send off to N. Lookhmaji or Tawakkal for the flakiest khajlas; but in many families from Surat, these things were made at home (and in our case, if we wanted ‘em we had to make ‘em).
A child’s memory is so pictorial – I remember mom pulling out a thin smooth rounded wooden stick, which she brought with her all the way from Mumbai. I remember the tinkle of gold bangles – which to date I associate with mothers in general – as she rolled out thin little diamond shaped sheets of dough, wrapped them round the stick layer after layer. Then she slit one side to peel off the whole thing. This she gently rolled out and kept aside. She made several more of these. She put a dollop of malai on one and pressed the other on the top, cloaking the malai into a pastry –covered bump. She then deep- fried these (oh please we’re Bohra, we don’t do fat-free). Lo and behold they blossomed into golden brown layers with a magical gooey soft filling that perfectly complemented the crunch. A plateful of these garnished with powdered sugar held place of pride in our thaal (like the beignets I later discovered in New Orleans).
Mum has long since moved to Mumbai, and doesn’t use the stick much– she’s spoilt for choice in mithaiwalas. But there are others who still preserve these traditions with much love. Rizwanaben Dhoon, like many women, learnt the art of the khajla from her mother. And having mastered the art, ganged up with three aunts to take orders. Subsequently she scaled up her operations and set up her own catering business.
Traditional food, hard to find elsewhere was her speciality. The khajla she says can be made at home. It’s important to roll the dough very thin, sprinkle oil and flour and roll on the stick. Keep adding layers with oil and flour in between. After you have a few layers, cut one side on the stick and open it out. After placing the filling, she advises that you fry at a low temperature. Easier said than done! As Rizwanaben says, it takes years of practice to make the pastry so the layers open up perfectly. The sign of a really good pastry is paper-thin layers that are crisp, but not hard.
But once you master the art, it is an amazingly versatile element in a dish. Fill it with malai or sweetened mawa for mithaas. For the most amazing savoury dish, add salt in the pastry. Then place kheema filling in one half of the diamond shape and fold it over and press gently. Pop these triangles in hot oil and you have the fabulous varkhai samosa. Once you sink your teeth into layers of crispy pastry to get to the moist tasty kheema, you’re bound to look with snobbish disdain at the humble poor cousin of a samosa. Yet another way to enjoy pastry is the sabaya which has a base of mava covered with sheets of this pastry and baked to crispy brown glory.
It is possible, Rizwanaben says, to use frozen puff pastry or phillo pastry to make varkhai samosa and sabaya. However, it pales in comparison to the real home-made deal.
She herself now only takes orders for ziyafats. And given how time consuming it is, not many women will attempt it. Not many will even get the opportunity to learn these dishes first hand from a skilled cook. Still, some things are worth taking the trouble to preserve. What if someone said it was too hard to save the Taj Mahal? Where would we be, if you please? And the dodo, remember what happened to it?