Ali Baba, a small cosy eating place in Frazer Town, Bengaluru, is where you get some Persian and Arabian food at reasonable prices. But what its USP is that its young and handsome owner, Shaad Hassan Damudi, is a Bhatkali Muslim and serves up some authentic Bhatkali food. Bhatkal is a small town in Southern Karwar district of Karnataka and has a rich and relatively unknown cultural and culinary history. The Muslims there are called Navayaths or new people. The Navayaths speak a dialect called Navayathi which is a fusion of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Marathi, Hindustani with Konkani as its base.
Traders from the Persian Gulf—namely Yemen, Iran and Iraq—who traded mainly in horses, textiles, timber, gemstones and spices, eventually settled on the Konkan coast and contributed to the cuisine that is a ménage of Indian, Persian and Arabic cultures.
The most famous dish has got to be the delightful Bhatkali Biryani, half-cooked in steam. Damudi uses Sella basmati rice which is an aged rice and is exported to the Middle East and hence not available in India. “We use a lot of browned onions and tomatoes, and a red chilli paste which add colour. Our food is moderately spicy and whole garam masala is added to biryani which is layered with rice and then the onion, tomato, ginger garlic and garam masala mixture,” says Damudi.
Popular TV foodies—Rocky and Mayur of Highway on my Plate fame—recently visited Ali Baba and gorged on the Bhatkali food and featured it on one of their shows.
The kadang fry is a must-try for vegetarians, its sweet potatoes with the ubiquitous red chilli paste, an interesting blend of sweet and spicy flavours. The boneless chicken tikka cooked on a barbeque does remind me of tandoori chicken but the red chilli paste gives it that distinctly Bhatkali flavour. The people here use vinegar made from sugarcane which is used in salads as well as in finely cut onions as an accompaniment. The predominant flavour 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 cashew nut paste. However, the addition of one quintessentially coastal south Indian ingredient—coconut milk—not only sweetens it, but also stamps it as a Navayathi.
Gawa Shaiyo was a pleasant surprise. It is wheat vermicelli with mutton in it. The mutton is amazingly tender, delicately spiced, and enhanced by the nutty flavour of fried wheat vermicelli. For those who thought vermicelli was used only in vegetarian dishes and to make kheer, this should come as a delicious revelation.
The piece de resistance is the vermicelli chicken biryani which is simply mouth-watering, surprisingly light and does not need any accompanying gravy or burhani or raita. “This biryani is best when made with chicken and not mutton,” says Damudi. The prawn fry is pretty crunchy being deep fried with a bit of cornflour added, along with the red chilli paste. Surprisingly, hardly any coconut is used in Bhatkali cuisine.
Tausha sherbat is made with grated cucumbers to which a wee bit of sugar is added. The cucumber releases its own water and this delightfully and refreshing simple drink is ideal on a hot summer’s day. All you need is a spoon to dig into it.
The desserts are pretty exotic. One made from, hold your breath, dill leaves with condensed milk and eggs reminds one of good old caramel custard. It is steamed and very tasty, except for its light green colour!
The ambience is exotic with doors and other accessories from old homes in Bhatkal innovatively used as table tops and decorative pieces. Pricing is reasonable and portions pretty generous.