Ever since Rajesh Pai of Kanua told me about Ali Baba in Frazer Town, I have been meaning to go. I’ve sent several people there on the strength of his recommendation alone.
From the name, you’d think it was yet another of those hummus-pita-fatoush-shawarma type places that have mushroomed all over Bangalore East. Much like the cave in the eponymous story, though, Ali Baba conceals a precious treasure: it serves the cuisine of the little-known Navayath community of Bhatkal, on the Konkan coast.
The Navayaths are the descendants of the Arab traders who settled on the Konkan coast in medieval times. The name of the community is widely believed to mean “newcomers” (nav = new; aayath = arrival); but I have also heard theories about nine boats and nine languages (nav also means “nine”). Although their language is indeed an amalgam of several tongues – Persian, Arabic, Konkani, Sanskrit, Hindi, and Marathi – the “newcomers” theory sounds the most plausible to me.
The Navayaths form a small and close-knit community with a strong sense of heritage. Like their language, their cuisine is complex, featuring local ingredients worked over with influences from the different countries that the traders came from and traveled to.
My first visit to Ali Baba marked one of those rare occasions when all four of us agreed on what we felt like eating (usually, one wants Italian, one wants Andhra meals, and two want Thai).
Quirky interiors keep the past alive
The unassuming little eatery is located on MM Road, opposite the mosque, and above a travel agency. The entrance is on a side street. You climb an unpromising, narrow flight of steps until suddenly confronted with an incongruous, beautiful dark-wood door frame. Enter, turn right, and Open Sesame – you find yourself in a wondrous warm and welcoming little cave.
A quick aside about the interiors, because they are as deserving of mention as the food.
On a subsequent visit, I had the pleasure of speaking with Shaad Hassan Damudi, the owner, about the décor. Eschewing interior designers in favor of their own creativity, he and his brother decorated Ali Baba themselves.
Broad sweeps on the pristine white ceiling add visual interest (“We wanted to give the impression of sand dunes”, Shaad tells me); red walls, dark wood, interesting lamps, and brocade add a sense of luxe to an otherwise simple space.
Although he prefers to talk about the food, pushing Shaad for more details on the décor throws up some interesting nuggets. Like the fact that the next table used to be a window frame in the Damudi family home in Bhatkal. The fact that you may be sitting on an ancient “patai” or storage trunk. Or the fact that when they needed to add a table in a hurry, an old sewing machine was pressed into service as a table base (ditto for a large cauldron used to heat water for bathing).
… is categorized under three different heads: Bhatkally, Arabian, and Persian. We decided to focus on the Bhatkally food alone. Ali, the manager, was very helpful in guiding us with our choices.
As is customary for this family, we over-ordered:
Laun Miriya Mhaure (Fish slices cooked in a red chilli masala); Gawa Shaiyyo (a traditional wheat vermicelli dish cooked with either mutton or chicken); Chicken Khurma (Chicken cooked with ground cashew in coconut milk); Gawa Poli (traditional Bhatkally wheat roti); Burhani (a raitha); plain biryani rice; and Raithey – a dish that isn’t on the menu, featuring sweet potato, pumpkin, jackfruit, and raw papaya. We also ordered Tausha Sharbat (a Navayathi cucumber drink) and lime-mint coolers to wet our gullets.
The Sharbath consisted of finely grated cucumber sweetened with sugar to draw out its juice. Very refreshing, but it’s hard to drink grated cucumber – in my opinion, this should be strained prior to serving.
Of the dishes we consumed at this meal, I want to focus on three in particular: Gawa Shaiyo, Raithey and Chicken Khurma.
For someone who’s only ever tasted vermicelli in its myriad vegetarian avatars, Gawa Shaiyo was a revelation. Wheat vermicelli with mutton in it? I can live with that. Especially when the mutton is love-me-tender, delicately spiced, and enhanced by the nutty flavor of fried wheat vermicelli. Two thumbs up!
If you’re familiar with my strong (okay, make that very strong) preference for meat over vegetables, it will surprise you to know that my favorite dish on the table that afternoon was the only vegetarian item we’d ordered.
Raithey is a seasonal specialty dish that does not appear on Ali Baba’s menu. The manager, Ali, recommended we try it. I wasn’t too keen, given that it contained a strange assortment of vegetables, but he insisted. In retrospect, I’m glad he did.
Raithey is like nothing I have tasted before. It’s tangy and spicy, with mild mustardy notes that sing on the palate. The veggies come together very nicely: sweet meets heat, root meets fruit, and the whole is irresistible. Highly recommended!
Unlike most qormas I have tasted, the predominant flavor of the Chicken Khurma at Ali Baba is sweet. True to its Indo-Persian origins, this dish is creamy and smooth, thickened and enriched with cashewnut paste.
However, the addition of one quintessentially coastal south Indian ingredient – coconut milk – not only sweetens it, but also stamps it as a Navayathi dish: Persia meets Konkan
coast. The flaky gawa poli – akin to parathas, but not so oily – were a perfect foil for this dish, as were the fragrant biryani rice and the burhani.
On a subsequent visit with MnM (aka the Girlfriends), we ordered Kukdi Maas Fry and Shewso Fry (chicken and prawn respectively, each deep fried with chilli and other spices); Kadang Fry (finely sliced sweet potato, dipped in chilli powder and palm vinegar and deep fried); Mutton Shaiyya Biryani; Tausha Launchay (sliced cucumber dressed with chilli and vinegar); and Gawa Poli and Chicken Khurma again. This time, also I tried something called a “Saudi Champagne” – apple juice all dressed up with soda, some cassia bark, a splash of lemon juice, and a sprig of mint. It was delightful.
We loved the Kukdi Maas Fry. Contrary to our expectation, it wasn’t swimming in oil. A crisp exterior with a hint of cumin encased moist, bite-sized pieces of chicken. We couldn’t keep our hands off. Likewise the Shewso Fry – outstanding, although I have to say that the second plate we ordered was very slightly overdone, so there is definitely an issue with being consistent. Shaad explained that the Byadgi chillies are brought in all the way from Bhatkal to ensure the correct color and level of heat.
The Kadang Fry was an interesting meld of flavors – the sweet, starchy tuber was elevated by the tang of palm vinegar and the kick of chilli. Although I have tasted various kinds of fritters before, these have to count amongst the most interesting.
The sole disappointment was the Shaiyya Biryani. This is a very traditional Navayathi dish, so my expectations were high. It’s supposed to be a half dum-cooked biryani prepared with sevai instead of rice. “We are not exactly sure how the shaiyya biryani came into existence although it’s a very popular dish which is usually eaten for dinner,” says Shaad. The meat is first pre-cooked with all the special ingredients. The sevai is par-cooked and then layered over the cooked meat masala with spices, then covered and dum-cooked on a slow flame [until done].”
Unfortunately, Ali Baba chooses to replace the sevai with noodles (big, fat, thick noodles, at that) unless a customer specifically requests that they use vermicelli.
Although it was tasty, with the mutton falling off the bone, the texture was strange, with the noodles overwhelming other, more subtle flavors. I would imagine that vermicelli would be a more delicate counterfoil to the meat – as it was, the noodles completely overwhelmed the flavor. If you order this dish – and you should – ask for it to be prepared using sevai.
Ali Baba’s varied menu merits repeated visits, for several reasons:
- Seasonal, off-menu specialties such as the aforementioned raithey, and alibbey (jungle mushrooms)
- Unusual desserts like shaufa panna pudding, a sort of custard flavored with dill
- Refreshing Iranian and Moroccan chais at the end of your meal
- The fact that you can eat heartily and doggie bag some for later at Rs. 300 per head or less (our bill for the first meal for four described above totalled Rs. 1166 including tax).
Ali Baba Café
No. 69, 1st floor,
Phone: 080 40917163