CHENNAI: It’s a cloudy evening at Triplicane’s Jam Bazaar area, and the signs of a drizzle, maybe a heavy downpour, seem imminent. But that is no deterrent to the many customers huddling at Basha Halwawallah, some of whom order their favourite delicacy in boxes of varying sizes, while others opt for a quick snack of their popular Dum ka Roat served in butter paper, to be savoured instantly.
Inside the store, Jalaluddin sits behind a counter, instructing his employees in a mix of Urdu and Dakhni, the tongue spoken in Deccani Muslim families. The third-generation proprietor of the business, which has traditionally been handed down from father to son, Jalaluddin is rather apologetic about not being able to spend time with this reporter. “This is a typically hectic time at our store, and I can’t afford to leave my customers dissatisfied. But my son Moinuddin will join very soon, you can talk to him,” he says.
No sooner does Jalaluddin finish uttering this than he rushes to attend to a customer reaching out with an outstretched arm, a currency note folded between his fingers. With the other employees busy dealing with the rapidly-swarming customers outside, he scoops out a slice of Dum ka Roat onto a piece of butter paper and serves it to the customer. Despite the skeletal crew with which they work, items keep flying off the shelves of this tiny outlet and by the time Moinuddin has arrived, some of them are already empty.
It was on this very street almost a century ago (1915, Moinuddin asserts) that Basha Sahib opened a halwa store from inside a hut and named it Basha Halwawallah. And it has operated out of this street since then, the only changes being the ownership through successive generations and the transition from hut to a proper outlet, small though it might seem. And their sweets are all produced at a facility barely 500 metres away.
Soon enough, the conversation veered towards their trademark Dum ka Roat, the halwa worthy of a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag. A combination of sooji (semolina) mixed with milk, khoya and ghee and cooked in a coal-fired stove for 3-4 hours till it achieves a crusty outer texture and soft inner texture, this is the dish that is now popular among diaspora Indians and tourists who seek to take with them a slice of the city as a consumable souvenir.
It was out of this very store that Basha Sahib fashioned the Dum ka Roat. In the years that were to follow, Basha’s innovation would make his brand a household name in the Triplicane area. “When I grew up in the 90s, people in the area instantly identified me as a descendant of the Basha lineage. Those were also the times when politicians would campaign in autorickshaws and every politician who ever campaigned at Triplicane would stop by our store. No function in any of the area’s Muslim households is complete without an offering of Dum ka Roat,” says Moinuddin.
While there have been other sweet shops that have tried to emulate the Dum ka Roat, they’ve met with little success. There were even competitors in other parts of the city who’ve used the name Basha to sell their sweets, recalls Moinuddin, and they were compelled to register their brand name.
All about craft
While there’s nothing novel about the ingredients used to make Dum ka Roat, the innovation lies in the way it’s cooked, the way it’s kept simmering for hours until it achieves the right texture. And cooking on a coal-fired stove also has to do with its uniqueness. In fact, Moinuddin says, they don’t use gas to make any of their sweets. “Cooking in a coal-fired stove is a demanding task, and requires constant supervision,” he adds.
While the Dum ka Roat halwa remains the most popular of delicacies at Basha, it’s not the only one. There’s the carrot halwa, mysore pak, and all the other sweets you’d find at any sweet shop in the city. But Moinuddin insists that the method used to make them are still unique, unlike those of other sweet sellers, even the big names in the business. “We use no special ingredients, and a lot depends on the heating process and the timing. For instance, for the carrot halwa, we shred our carrots by hand, though there are machines that can do this on a large scale and the job is done much faster. But cooking is an art, and the extent to which one is involved in the making of a sweet, the passion you put into it, is reflected in the final product.” The artisanal method of sweet making, as opposed to the large-scale industrial model, is something Basha Halwawallah swears by.
The other popular delicacy at Basha’s is Ande ki Mithai. A regular staple in Deccani homes, they were one of the first to introduce this to the wider market. Another way in which the Bashas have remained resolutely old-school is in their refusal to transition to plastic boxes, preferring cardboard boxes with butter paper laid inside. The cardboard boxes, sourced locally, come in colourful patterns and a sticker, which is then wound with a rubber band after packing.
The Bashas were dealt a blow during the pandemic, when they had to close down their store and halt production. The restrictions on travel further dented their business. “A significant part of our clientele came from outside Tamil Nadu and India,” Moinuddin said, “and with travel cut off, our revenues were badly affected. Even locally, orders had dwindled, because who would want to buy sweets in such times? In the second lockdown, we were allowed to function in a smaller capacity, but it’s only now that business has resumed to normal.”
Going by the long queue outside the store, business certainly seems to have returned to pre-pandemic levels, and the Dum ka Roat halwa is still the most coveted of the various delicacies at Basha Halwawallah. “This is the halwa you can proudly claim is unique to Madras. Every other halwa or sweet meat sold in the city has its origins elsewhere, but the Dum ka Roat was born here, and it continues to be made using the same recipe handed down by Basha Sahib to succeeding generations,” Moinuddin shared.